Reconsider the Ant

I sit on the absurdly narrow strip of concrete that makes up the fast food drive through – a thin lane hemmed in by a dense copse of trees on the passenger side, and the restaurant’s brick facade on the driver’s.  Whether conscious in the designer’s mind or not, it’s a design concept that was destined to portray in real life how trapped those of us who frequent these restaurants feel in our synthetic grease-addled gastronomical routines. 

From my hopelessly ensconced vantage point behind the wheel, as I no doubt wrestle at a subconscious level with my life choices, I stare at the sill of the first drive-thru window, the one which seems to never be used (a fact I register with both wonder and something near shame – I frequent this joint enough to know its operational oddities) as two ants approach each other.  They make a beeline (insect puns be damned) toward each other in an unwavering head-on approach.  It’s an efficient movement, as seems to be their species’ wont.

When their heads touch, their bodies creating a near-perfect line, I wonder if they will then fight or mate or engage in some other activity that would feel obscene for me to watch. Instead, they sit that way, perfectly still to my eyes, for only a moment, seemingly pressed forehead to forehead (do ants have foreheads? Is it mandible-to-mandible, or some other such bio-jargon?) and then continue on the way opposite each other, in the direction they were heading before they met and engaged in this interaction.

I wonder what message passed between them in that moment, what rite of communion was so important that it necessitated a relatively large break in their day.  For it was a large break, at least to them, no? If these creatures, in the pursuit of their daily bread, can carry dozens of times their own body weight (a la some late-night documentary or other), skewing in the process the human perspective of mass and volume, does time thus skew on their level as well?  Were those two seconds of apparent cessation of work paramount to my morning’s repast in the office break room, a dinner date with friends, or a prolonged but necessary come-to-Jesus meeting amongst family? 

Did I witness something profound in the otherwise tedious toil of an otherwise single-minded and ubiquitous creature?

My mind travels back nearly 30 years, to an interview I took part in for a chance at a university scholarship.  I was seventeen, and it was a group interview, with three or four other potential students, students I didn’t know,  in attendance as well, all of us vying for money with which to launch our academic careers and, in turn, our adult lives.  We scholarship-seekers sat on one side of a long white table, and our interviewers/inquisitors/scholarship-givers sat on the other. 

We were asked a series of questions, with each being given a chance to answer each, in turn.  I can only assume that this multi-interviewee approach was aimed at efficiency on the part of the university, but there seemed to be also an added layer of intentional challenge, along the lines of “How do you do in a setting with your peers” or even “Which of you is the most competitive?” (The latter decisively answered by one of my contemporaries who proudly claimed that one of the first things HE would do when he arrived at the university was to become the editor of the student newspaper, presumably dethroning whichever poor schlub currently held the position – checkmate!)

As I recall, most of the questions proffered that day were more or less expected in this setting. 

“What are your goals?”

“What makes you a good candidate for this school, and for the scholarship?”

“Why should we bequeath this money to you, oh child?”

But one question stood out, not only because it was of the Outside the Box, test one’s imagination vein, but because I had been tipped off that the question was coming by a friend who was also vying for the scholarship and had interviewed before me.  Thus, I had prepared.  I had given it much thought.  I had dithered nearly constantly since the question was first leaked to me, and I had built my response, carefully and with great enthusiasm. 

So, it was with no small amount of consternation that when the question “If you were an animal, what kind of animal would you be?” was vocalized in my direction, I heard myself offering my carefully planned answer with a sudden conviction that I had squandered the gift of foresight.

“I would be an ant”, I said.

What?! Why was this the answer I had worked so hard on? For it was the answer I had labored over. Was this a case of something sounding better in one’s own head than said out loud to other actual human ears and brains? Or was I deluded from the start, this never being a good response in this – on any – setting.

No turning back, I went on to explain, through the red face of what would denote periods of toxic shame in my life, that I admired the ant, its diligence in work, its sense of community above self, its lack of selfishness. 

In short, I knew myself to be saying, “I am a hard worker who does not care to be notable.”

I cannot be sure, but I would bet real academic money that the future editor-in-chief of the college newspaper, who had stated with utmost confidence that he would be a badger or a bald eagle or a great white or some other steady and vicious creature, had rolled his eyes as I made my paltry explanation.   For their part, our benevolent interviewers had smiled kindly and noted something or other on their notepad.  Whatever it was, it was not “Give this guy ALL the money!”; if it was, they were soundly ignored, as I never saw a dime of that scholarship. 

For my part, that seventeen-year-old had never more wanted to be something like an ant, to crawl deep into the earth and away from that table.  The forty-something me knows that it was a fine answer and a noble sentiment.  But, those qualities don’t win scholarships.  Apparently.

In any case, I did not crawl into a pile of sand but shuffled off, above ground, relocating my shame elsewhere. I did ok, graduating with a degree from a somewhat less prestigious state school and being blessed with a career and life that’s not bad at all. 

As the cars in front of us begin to move forward, I must move too, leaving the sill and the other incidental scurrying creatures upon it to their continued lives.   As I inch my way towards the one functional window, I wonder about badger-eagle boy, wonder if he got the scholarship, and, if so, how he fared with the school paper.  I wonder if I’ve ever read anything of his.  I wonder if he ever finds himself stuck in a narrow drive-through, contemplating life’s myriad turns and watching tiny spindly creatures live their productive lives on the side of a greasy fast food joint. 

If not, I believe he’s the worse for it.

Thanks for reading, and have a wonderful weekend!

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