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  • Writer's pictureEve Bernfeld

There's No Such Thing as an Ant

ant carrying a leaf
Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash

I watched a sugar ant walk across my kitchen counter, knowing that a string of ants wouldn’t be far behind. And I found myself engaged in a thought experiment: What if there is no such thing as an ant? I mean a single ant. Ant, singular. There are only ants, plural. I may see a single ant. But that ant is not really what we’d think of as an individual (what a horror individualism would be to an ant!). It is instead an integral member of a community, carrying out its own function within the locus of the colony.

In the last year I have known three great people who died. And I mean great people, but I also mean “great” people. I read their magnificent obituaries. I attended their beautiful memorial services (in two cases, remotely) and listened to all the amazing and inspiring and remarkable things they accomplished in their lifetimes. I am so grateful to have known all three of them. All three profoundly influenced the shape and scope of my life. All died in their 70s, so not exactly “young,” but also younger than they could have been, younger than those of us who loved them felt they should have been. And now it occurs to me that each was like the sugar ant. I saw them each in their individual glory, but they were not really loners, any more than the ant on my counter. They were each part of and products of communities of family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, teachers, students. Even their effect on me cannot be separated from the relationship I had with each of them. We were not individuals bumping into each other. We were planets in a celestial dance, mutually affected by each other’s gravity. I was a baby ant in their colony.

Another thought experiment: What if individualism is a habit? And not a particularly helpful one. I want my children to be resourceful, independent and self-sufficient. Hm… But I think that has to mean that they look out for each other. That they know when to ask for and when to offer help.

Asking for help is one of the hardest things for me and I see it in a lot of my peers as well, especially moms. We are socialized to believe that we should be able to do all the things—nurse the baby while breaking the glass ceiling and don’t get me started on how we are supposed to look whilst doing all that. So we are shocked when we find parenthood lonely, unrelenting, chaotic. (Enter a pandemic.)

If individualism is a habit, maybe it’s one I can work on breaking. Maybe instead of this blinding spotlight focused on myself and all that I’m meant to be doing and accomplishing, aspiring to be a "great" person and never being satisfied, I can bring up a more general wash over the whole stage and see that—indulge me on this extended theatrical metaphor—this is not a soliloquy. I am not alone. And from there, it’s a smaller step to reach out. To offer help and, harder still, ask for it. To teach my children to be members of community.

In case there's no such thing as an ant.

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May 16, 2022

Thank you so much for your thoughtful article.

I'm sorry for your loss.

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