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The Grasshopper and the Ants

I remember hearing this story as a child.

It’s harvest time, and the ants are working hard to gather food. But the grasshopper doesn’t help and instead plays his violin, sings songs, and generally enjoys himself. Then, of course, when winter comes, the grasshopper doesn’t have stores of food and must turn to the ants to be fed and to survive. My young self came to two conclusions:

1. The ants were good – industrious, forward-thinking, practical.

2. The grasshopper was bad – lazy, disobedient, disrespectful of the serious and wise.

As an adult, I think of this story differently. It occurs to me that the grasshopper is not being lazy, but is in fact showing integrity and courage by being himself. He is a creative who brings forth melodies from the invisible realm. He crafts the magic of music, which speaks to hearts and lifts spirits.

The ants are more inclined toward physical preparation and logical action, and this has the positive result of allowing them to physically survive lean times. But I am sad now, thinking of how they shamed the grasshopper for expressing his inner truth, and then piled on more shame when they reluctantly fed him in the winter. Yes, the version I remember features a begrudgingly righteous ant population, obligated to help a fellow creature, but not happy about it. Considering the gruesomeness of many of old morality-based stories, I wouldn’t be surprised if older versions have the grasshopper starving to death and the ants carrying away the grasshopper’s dead body once spring arrives.

It’s an unfortunate situation when two different views resent each other to the point where they start to deny some of their own strengths. One of the ants’ strengths, for example, is that they are communal. They share with and protect each other, allowing all members to contribute their share and distributing everything equally.*

It seems that a group based on collective well-being could very easily accept the role of feeding an individual who contributes to society in a way that does not involve the gathering of that food. For example, there are ants whose jobs aren’t food-based: they breed and raise baby ants, maintain tunnels, etc. I assume these individuals are fed just as well as the food-gatherers.*

If the ants were open to it, the grasshopper could contribute to their group by being allowed to share his unique talents with them. A monotonous, back-breaking job can be made infinitely more pleasant and even easy when music is allowed to be part of the atmosphere.

But when the ants patently reject musical expression as a valid way to spend one’s time, the grasshopper is less likely to share his work with the ants. And that, in turn, makes it so the ants don’t realize the beauty and uplifting magic of music.

So, feeling mutual resentment, the two species, with their two different (albeit highly complementary) ways of being, isolate from each other, imagining themselves to be in greater opposition than they really are. Instead of being allowed to appreciate and benefit from each other, their unhappiness increases (in part, ironically, from not being with each other!), and the spiral of dysfunction continues to grind everybody into misery.

The ants seem to have the upper hand morally, since their actions ensure the physical survival of all those they allow to partake of their spoils. (The unspoiled spoils, of course) That is because physical things can be easier for us corporeal creatures to acknowledge. But the creative realm (which I here equate with the spiritual) is just as essential for us to be our healthiest and best selves.

It occurs to me that I may need to write a children’s story that addresses some of these issues, because children embody the lessons in these stories more than we might understand.

Case in point: I am a 53-year-old woman who has, at every turn, denied my creative tendencies for the sake of more “practical” endeavors. In college, I chose to pursue science, even though sometimes I found the study thereof to be spirit-deadening. I enjoyed being in college plays so much that I considered being an actor. But I rejected the “starving artist” idea for an alternative that promised consistent wages.

The only thing that kept me happy or even sane as I studied science was seeing it as a metaphor for spiritual things and writing, either in journals or on now-lost pieces of paper that were what I could find at the time.

Even now, after I’ve filled scores of journals with writing, written hundreds of stories and poems, and worked at jobs that were not my calling, I still have had an inscrutable barrier keeping me away from the thought that I could actually become a full-time writer.

It’s time for me to get my inner ants and grasshoppers to become friends.

*I am not an ant expert; these statements may not be entirely accurate. But I think they contain some truth, and they help with the analogy.