Last summer, on account of coconut water spilled on the floor, ants invaded our home.
We are generally averse to killing any living creature, and this extends even down to the insect world (minus mosquitoes. Everyone has his limit). When I came home to find critters crawling on the floor, I generally picked them up and sent them flying out the window.
Unsurprisingly, when an ant sensed my presence, it fled in terror. If I succeeded in capturing it between my fingers, there’d be a moment when I would feel the ant mustering all its strength to escape my clutches. It would struggle with all its might to avoid whatever I had in store for it. No amount of effort on its part, however, could prevent a trip out the window.
Now imagine if these ants, after having seen their family members and friends being picked off one by one, banded together and tried to make sense out of their shifting fortunes. It would surely seem strange to them that at certain times of day they could scrape the remaining sugars from the floor unencumbered, while at others dozens of them headed out only to join the ranks of “the disappeared.” The knowledge that death, disfigurement, and calamity looms over your head, like a sword that’s drawn and just waiting to come down, would be hard to accept.
Perhaps in the ant nest, they would tell themselves stories about why some of them go missing while others don’t. Perhaps they would concoct explanations about how the truly hard workers never get picked off, or that those who vanish had committed some error in a previous life (perhaps as a fly) to merit that fate. They might even devise elaborate tales of what awaits after the “giant hand in the sky” comes down to get them.
This might create a great deal of comfort for the ant community. It might even give them the courage to risk their thoraxes out there in the vast hallway expanse, or provide solace to members who had lost loved ones.
As much as these stories would serve a practical social function, they actually conceal a much deeper truth – one that would be fairly obvious if they could see the larger picture.
If the ants could have seen inside my mind, they would have realized that my actions were entirely arbitrary. There were times when I could not stand to see them and would mercilessly hunt down every last one. Other times I’d be occupied with changing diapers or making dinner and I couldn’t be bothered to give chase.
When I finally captured them, there was no rhyme or reason that dictated whether I had the patience to set them on the windowsill or fling them down to endure a three-story free fall. Or whether I would treat them with a little less delicacy and pulverize their fragile bodies without a second thought.
It was entirely random whether they returned to the nest with food or whether their partially dismembered bodies were left wriggling to die on the floor. But to see this larger picture, they’d have to drop their stories, and realize that try as they might, they are wholly incapable of explaining what happens to them.
Suppose one day that there were an ant-psychologist who observed the workings of the world and studied the stories his fellow creatures tell themselves about the Great Spirit in the sky. He would sympathize with the desire to spot a causal link between events and discern order in the chaos, but would also note certain flaws in the stories.
For one, having known far too many “good ants” who did exactly as the ant-community dictated and yet still met brutal ends, he would see through the illusion that righteousness is a ticket for reward and wickedness is an invitation for punishment. He would point out that the ants themselves in one of their traditional stories have an example that showed ‘moral behavior’ is no protection against misfortune (and by contrast, many wicked members of the community seem to go about their daily business completely unimpeded). When the ant in that story tried to confront his unjust punishment, he was met by a thunderous whirlwind that impressed upon him the inability for an ant to understand its fate.
The ant psychologist would not be wrong in coming to the conclusion that shit happens, and he can’t make sense of it. Sitting on his tiny couch, he would likely conclude that his compatriots cling to explanations as a defense mechanism to avoid truly feeling their vulnerability.
What do you think would happen if the ant-psychologist brought his observations back to the nest?
The ants who dutifully console the others would accuse him of heresy. How dare you question an accepted part of the ant-liturgy that has been passed down for generations?
It would be very difficult for the psychologist to communicate that it is presumptuous for ants to think they understand their fate. The ants would probably not enjoy having the psychologist point out that these stories have lured them into the trap of pride.
And yet at the same time, the ant psychologist would likely have great compassion for those who cannot resist the comfort of the stories. He would know that they all face the choice between accepting the terrible implications of their fragility, or comforting themselves with the idea that there’s somehow order in the chaos.
There are times when even he cannot resist repeating the platitude that “everything happens for a reason.”