I’ve had two fairly traumatic experiences with ants. Traumatic experience number one happened when I was about four years old. I was playing in my backyard in Texas and found myself standing in the middle of a fire ant nest. In case you aren’t aware, fire ants are lightning fast. So, as you might imagine, my scrawny little legs were completely covered in stinging ants before I could even react – before I could even scream.
My second traumatic experience happened just a few years ago when I was living in Chicago. I lived in an old basement apartment with ground level windows. As the weather warmed, my roommate and I would inevitably find ants around the windows. At first, I wasn’t bothered by them. As long as the ants stayed out of my kitchen and main living areas, I could handle a few around the windows. After all, I was living in an old basement with old windows and, most importantly, cheap rent, so my roommate and I did what we could. We had the windows sprayed and put out those little ant baits from the home improvement store and moved on with our lives.
Or so I thought, until I was on the train one day headed to work. I noticed an ant crawling up my jacket. I crushed him with my finger and flung him onto the floor. Then a few minutes later another ant and then another. I couldn’t figure it out. Where were they coming from? I looked around, trying not to look like a creepy ant-person on the train, but also trying desperately to see if there were any more on me.
Then I opened my purse.
And there they were. The bright chartreuse lining of my impeccably cute clutch was black with ants. There must have been a hundred or more crawling up and down my wallet, and over my Chapstick, and across my cell phone. The window ants and all of their friends had for some reason, unbeknownst to me to this day, decided to move-in to my purse in the middle of the night. And I was just finding out about it on the train ride to work.
(I’d like it on the record, though, I am a very clean person and I don’t keep food in my purse!)
So, what’s a girl to do when she finds her purse is filled with ants while she’s on a train with lots of people and limited stops? You close your purse and try to keep calm until you get to your stop. It was a nightmare – to say the least. Let’s just say I waged an all out war on their little asses and we didn’t have an ant problem at home after that day.
I have a love-hate relationship with ants. Well, maybe it’s more like a respect-hate relationship. Despite my traumatic experiences, I do have some respect for them. And I think humans and ants are very much alike in a fundamental sort of way.
We colonize and have central leaders. We form armies to raid people’s homes and purses, which gives rise to vigilante armies that devastate people’s train rides.
We have a hierarchy and an order to things, and day-jobs. We get in line and keep our heads down and work to put roofs over our heads and food on our tables and food on the tables of our leaders. We live to work and we live for our next meal.
The thing about ants is they seem pretty ordinary as a whole. They all seem kind of the same. I mean, unless they are in your purse or pantry, you don’t pay them much attention. You usually don’t stop to admire their ability to walk together in a straight line because that’s just what ants do.
But, you may stop to admire the lone ant who has ventured out, who has found the sweet red watermelon amongst the dark green landscape of the summer grass. And you may admire that ant as he carries a juicy piece, ten times his size, back to his home 26.2 ant-miles away. And you may admire as he declares to his colony, “We will not starve this winter!”
This ordinary little ant has done an extraordinary thing. Yet, if he were any other insect he would not have been able to achieve this extraordinary act. He was born with the gift of being an ant.
We tend to act as if being human is no special thing. Like the ants, we seem ordinary as a whole. We all seem the same at the most basic level. So we walk around almost as if it is a barrier to be human, when it is, in actuality, a strength. No other known creatures can do what we can do. Period.
It is a gift to be human.
Dalia Mogahed, a very successful researcher who studies Muslim communities, was asked at the end of her TED talk what she would say to people who saw her as an exception to the rule. This was her brilliant response:
“I would say, don’t let this stage distract you. I’m completely ordinary…I am not in any way an exception. When you meet people who seem like an exception to the rule, oftentimes it’s that the rule is broken, not that they’re an exception to it.”
I believe the broken rules are the lies we’ve bought in to and these lies have led to a broken world. But, I’ve found the apparent exceptions – the people who live extraordinary lives – stopped buying in or never bought in at all. They decided they were going to spend their lives changing the rules so their lives and even the world might be different.
If a knife was being held to the delicate skin between your chest and your chin, I speculate that your one most pressing desire in that moment would be to live. You probably wouldn’t be thinking about how badly you’re craving a latte or how you really wish that girl would call you back.
Living is quite possibly our most true desire. Yet, most of us are not really living. We are surviving at best. We are surrendering to average lives and comfortable deaths. We play victim to monotony, as if it was going to win-out anyway.
We stay in line.
We let the broken rules rule us.
Remember, though, you couldn’t distinguish the ant that found the watermelon from any other ant, except for the fact that he stepped out of the single file line and into greatness.
Like my friend, Eric, who decided around age 40 he was going to start a denim company – in Detroit of all places – because he loved jeans! Eric taught me it’s never too late to pursue your dreams, and he taught me that even the most brokenhearted cities still have a heartbeat.
Or my friends, Tom and Cait, who showed me the world is truly my backyard, my play-place. They left behind the lie that a 9-5 job and owning a home filled with stuff was the key to happiness. They have been traveling and working across America in a fifth-wheel RV, seeing more in a few months than many of us see in a lifetime.
Or like my pastor friend, Scott, who actually practices what he preaches. Most of us are passionate about the poor in so much as we have a little extra money in our bank accounts to give to charity. Scott and his family give their entire lives. They refused to buy in to the lie that comfort trumps risk. They left their comfortable suburban lives; now, they live and move and breath with and for the poor in Nicaragua.
What single file line are you in and how long are you going to stay there? What broken rules need fixing? What is going to be your act of ordinary human greatness? How are you going to start living?
My extraordinary friends would all tell you they are pretty ordinary. Well, they are all from the great state of Michigan! But none of them were born into greatness; they knew greatness was born in them. And they knew it was their responsibility not to waste the gift of being human.
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