The Eagle and the Ant

“What is needed now: Eagle or Ant?”

A core mission of the EcoPsychology Initiative (EPI)is to look to the Earth as a teacher and guide for how best humans can function. This includes addressing problems, designing solutions and realizing our potential. EPI’s 10 Principles, which is at the heart of much of our programming with organizations and individuals, is derived from the principles and processes found in the ecosystems of the planet.

Nature’s wisdom isn’t just from ecosystems however, Many insights and lessons can be derived from individual animals and organisms as well. For example, when I sit among the trees of my forested home, I am reminded to grow towards the light, be rooted and patient, and bend when the winds blow. The list, even for trees, goes on.

Recently, I’ve been particularly drawn to observing eagles and ants. First eagles.

My house is a little walk through the woods to a lake; at Somes Pond, there is a family of eagles that live high in the white pines. Occasionally, I’m lucky enough to be around as they fly overhead looking for food. Their soaring is majestic, and I imagine the feeling I get watching them is likely shared by many others, and the reason it is the bird of the United States. I sometimes like to imagine what they see hundreds of feet in the air. Despite their laser sharpe eyesight, they also reach heights that enable a vast and broad vision. Observing an eagle, I’m reminded of the lesson of keeping the big picture in mind. As I get stuck in the little minutiae of my day-to-day, of my little problems that seem so big, of my struggles that so many less privileged people would love to have, I try to remember keeping a big perspective. In these moments, I try to summon the eagle in me, to a have a larger view.

This is so important for me: it’s very easy to make ‘mountains out of molehills’, to create ‘waves out of ripples’, to focus on “my leaves on the pool problems”. I don’t think I’m the only one who encounters this. All of us can get caught in our little egoic dramas: our partners did something to annoy us, the reception is poor on our iphones, the work presentation didn’t go as well as hoped, etc. It’s at these moments I want remember to keep the big picture in mind. This perspective, like that of the eagle, brings me back to gratitude, to empathize with those less fortunate, and keep working towards improving the lives of other people and the planet. When I have the view of the eagle, I remember that bad days both happen and will end, uncomfortable emotions are like weather and will change, and what seems so stressing and pressing now probably won’t tomorrow.

In a world with media and marketing that says we need to focus on ‘getting ours’, on purchasing the next big, new, and shiny thing, I think we need to remember the eagle. It is this perspective and vision that brings us back to what is really important: simple pleasures, the well-being of loved ones and strangers alike, raising a wise and compassionate future generation, community, and planetary health.

Now for ants.

I admit to ambivalence as I watch the ant mounds expand in my yard. Several places that were once grass are now little expanses of brown. I confess I’ve even thought of being ‘proactive’ to stem their progress. The very qualities that have me contemplating halting their development, are the very ones that I admire about ants. They “get er’ done”.

Unlike eagles, ants are not all worried about the big picture. They work with extraordinary diligence and effort to do their work. Their efforts are inspiring, both for the quality and quantity of their labors. Like the old energizer bunny commercial, they “just keep going and going”. Through sheer effort, will, and commitment they accomplish incredible amounts of work.

Have you ever tried to deter an ant from it’s labors? It can’t really be done. Disrupt their home, block their path….doesn’t matter, they keep going. Their resilient and adaptive to whatever ‘problems’ might arise. They find a way to, in the words of famed American football coach Bill Belichick, “do their job”.

Ants do not get lost, distracted or dismayed by the obstacles in front of them. They don’t give up or fail to begin their work because of difficulty or likelihood of success. Unlike the eagle, ants keep their body to the earth and press on without worrying about all the distractions or reasons for pessimism and dismay.

As I follow the news, contemplate climate change or think about the world my daughter might grow up in, I can easily get distressed. The political acrimony and intolerance, anger and fear that pervades the world can sap my motivation and leaving me feeling hopeless that we, as a planet and society, will ‘make it’. Sometimes the big picture, the eagle viewpoint, is not helpful or productive. A larger perspective is sometimes the last thing we need. We need to have the ant perspective.

Feeling discouraged doesn’t just occur when thinking about systemic political, planetary, economic or social issues. It can also easily apply when we think about the difficulty of big changes in our life. In my personal environment  and working with clients, I find that making large personal changes-eating and exercise, anxiety or depression, addictions, etc-can be intimidating. We are all habitual people, and to change deeply ingrained habits that will be uncomfortable is daunting. We might know these changes are helpful, but it doesn’t make them easier to enact. In fact, the more we think about how hard it will be the less motivated we are. At which point, we must draw inspiration from the ant. Get to work.

One of my favorite quotes, is that a journey of a thousand miles happens one step at a time. When talking about change with students or clients, I often compare the process to moving through the dark with a headlamp. We often don’t know what’s around the bend, we can only know this next step. Both of these examples reference the teaching of the ant. They don’t waste their time thinking about what’s ten steps ahead. They act in the moment, this one action at a time.  

To be truly adept at life, I find it necessary to go back and forth between the eagle and the ant. Once we have the big picture and perspective of the eagle-what’s important-we then need to get down to being an ant with perseverance and patience. At times, the work and efforts of the ant are exhausting and I start to question if the sacrifice and discomfort are really worth it. At which point, I return to the vision of the eagle. I remember that my efforts towards healing our planet aren’t just about immediate returns: rather, I’m laboring, along with millions of other people globally, to create a world that my daughter and, maybe, grandchildren, will be happy to live in. I find energy and inspiration being an eagle. Fresh with that perspective, I get back down to the earth and become an ant again.

In both my personal life and that with clients, I keep coming back to the question, “what is needed now: eagle or ant”. This question keeps bringing me back to what’s most helpful in the moment. In the process, I find the purpose, passion and productivity that I’m wanting in life. I find that, yet again, nature knows the way.