Ants and bridges

Years ago, as a child, a snippet of a nature documentary stuck in my memory. I’ve thought of it often since focusing my attention on studying happiness and wellbeing, but I could not for the life of me remember much beyond the central concept. Today, I thought of this snippet again while presenting The Happiness Course, and this time the fragment of wisdom stayed in my mind. I Googled it, and found the origin of the remembered film footage. It was more significant in so many ways than I had realised.

The documentary must have been about the work of Eugene N. Marais, one of the greatest Afrikaner scientists, authors and poets ever. His life was a tragic one, marred by addiction and loss, notably Maurice Maeterlinck’s plagiarism of the most important work of his life. It’s this work, Die Siel van die Mier (The Soul of the Ant, translated into English as The Soul of the White Ant) on which the documentary I remember must have been based.

Marais talks of the Black ants you commonly see in South Africa, explaining their fear of water. He describes an experiment in which you dig a little furrow across the paths laid down by these ants, one leaving the nest to collect seeds, the other returning to the nest with their burden:

On both sides of the furrow, an excited group will congregate. It takes them a very, very long time to discover that an easy solution would be to make a detour. Before they think of this, however, a grass stalk may be placed across the waterway to serve as a bridge. You will immediately be able to watch their very peculiar and mysterious behaviour. The ants begin to test the dangerous bridge. One by one, they try the bridge with their forelegs, stretching their bodies across it, while they cling to the bank with their back legs. They feel the bridge with their forelegs and antennae. They then become aware of the water and hastily retreat to tell their fellow ants that the bridge is quite unsafe. This is what happens on the bank which is on the same side as the nest, where the unladen ants congregate. On the other side of the bridge, the side fartherst from the nest, the behaviour of the ants is quite different. The ants arrive here, each laden with a grass seed. Generally, the seed is so heavy that the ant’s progress is both difficult and hindered. What happens at the bridge? With apparently not the least hesitation, each ant steps on to the straw with its gigantic burden…. it always succeeds in bringing its load to safety and hurries home to its nest as if nothing had happened.

The behaviour of the unladen ant which leaves the nest is determined by only one instinctive urge – to fetch food. In any case, it is not a very strong urge, for it always operates in opposition to the ever-present and very great urge – the homing instinct.

This struck me deeply back when I first saw the documentary, and stayed with me. If we know we need to do A, but the pull to do B is stronger, we will find excuses to not do A. Every obstacle’s importance will be overestimated. Yet if we really want to do something, the obstacles will seem less daunting. We’ll find a way.

If you’re seeing each and every potential problem as insurmountable, it says one of two things. Either your heart is not really in it, and you should consider whether it wouldn’t be better to just drop the whole thing. Alternatively, you’re reluctant or scared of something you really do need to do, and you must recognise the source of your overestimation of problems, and ask yourself if they are really that bad.

Also, of course, you can see this in others. If someone professes to want to do something, yet every possible problem is made out to be the end of the world, they may be lying to themselves and to you about their desire to do this thing. You may need to confront them with the truth.

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