While helping behavior in animals is well documented, actual rescue behavior is extremely rare.  Instances of rescue in dolphins (helping distressed others to the surface to breathe) and one incident involving capuchin monkeys just about totals out the observed instances… that is until several scientists working in collaboration were able to document rescue behavior in ants.  Researchers Nowbahari, Scohier, Durand and Hollis found that an ant caught in a snare calls out for help and gets rescued by her sisters who bite through a filament trapping her.  (for the study itself see:

Beyond pheromones, the researchers marveled at how such tiny-brained creatures could pull off tactically complex operations—recognizing distress and working collectively to free one of their own.  While they do not speculate on the mind of the colony, it brings to my mind numerous fairytales in which a humble hero, on the quest for love and glory, is kind to ants in peril (and/or bees, fish, orphaned birds, etc.) when no one else could care less about their plight, but later on the ants come to the would-be hero’s rescue (for example, helping gather up grains of barely off the grass before the sunrise to complete a supposedly impossible task) and prove pivotal to his (it’s usually a would-be prince in search of his princess) success.  The moral lesson of these stories may be that it’s those who care about the underserved and powerless who the forces of nature ultimately favor.  Amongst the most ancient shamans, the buzzing bees were associated with vision quests, transcendent journeys and supreme wisdom. 

I’ve always been partial to ants and other insects.  One of my earliest memories is of playing in the dirt and becoming covered with ants.  My panicked mom was horrified and disgusted, but I felt calm and happy.  As a kid I preferred to be read to from a field guide to insects than most of the typical bedtime stories; it’s not that I don’t like people, it’s more that I’ve always thought that we can learn a lot from insects.  As a psychologist it seems interesting that the word psyche means butterfly in Greek and it also means soul—as symbol of transformation the psyche can transform into its fullest and best Self by intuiting that the ego is not the ultimate boss of us.  Parenting, by connecting us to our deeper Selves, and ultimately to our collective interrelatedness with all things, is soul-making par excellent.  By getting past the notion that parenting is all about doing a good job so our kids can be happy and successful, and delving into the possibility that parenting is one, amongst many, of the ways a human being might find meaning and purpose and bridge the terrible alienation that haunts us when we experience ourselves as either unimportant, or as important at the expense of others’ importance.  In either case we’re probably lonelier than an ant.

Now keeping in mind that humans in their current form are scarcely a couple of hundred thousand years old, we’ve got to tip our hats to the insects who have endured unchanged for sixty-plus million years.  We tend to think of insects as “primitive” and rather unintelligent, yet their intelligence resides in the collective—a hive or colony mind that may turn out to be superior to our own, perhaps over-rated, intelligence.

The researchers on ant rescues note that even though an ant colony is comprised of so many ants, their behavior shows that individual ants are recognized as being truly important.  Sometimes this is, sadly, more than we can say of human behavior.

So, today let’s consider our prejudices and judgmental views of ants, and of other creatures, staying open to the possibility that we might learn from their example by rethinking how we humans might further evolve our consciousness by realizing that every human is a member of our colony, and every child is important enough to have the love, protection, health and education befitting our own children.  To the extent this is not yet our lived reality, we ought to be schooled by the seemingly humble ants.

Namaste, Bruce


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