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Ants on a Log
Choosing how to show up to life
Part of working a program in AA includes looking at our “defects of character” - the tendencies and patterns and thoughts and behaviors that keep us stuck. It’s essential to examine these with ruthless honesty and accountability to clear the path for growth and to try to live in a new way. Most of my “stuff” could be reduced to issues of control and management in pursuit of safety and comfort - be it financial, psychological, physical.
Back in 2012, maybe a year into my current period of sobriety, I had this whole thing about being an ant on a log that was really helpful in reminding me to recognize and work with my character defects. As I’m starting to work a program more actively again, this visual returned to me and I find it really useful, so I’m sharing it here :)
I imagine an ant on a log that is raging down a river. I am the ant. The log is Earth. The river is the Universe. Each day, I try to ask myself, “which type of ant am I being?”
Captain Ant- Captain Ant is wearing a self-adorned captain’s hat and carrying a whistle, running from one side of the log to the other to monitor the situation and make sure everyone is safe and feels safe. Captain Ant runs herself ragged - believing that if she can just figure out how to get everyone to get along and feel good, and share her views and plan, that she can solve this problem of raging down the river and save the ants and the log. The lack of cooperation, and frankly concern, demonstrated by the other ants infuriates, maddens, saddens and frustrates Captain Ant and she feels alone in her catastrophic thinking and demoralized at the end of the day. Waking up the next day with a new commitment to fixing, solving, and managing, she puts on her captain’s hat and repeats the actions of yesterday. Deep in her little ant bones (I googled it, ants actually do have bones), she believes it is her job, her responsibility, to change the course of the log raging down the river and to manage all the ants on board the log so that there is no suffering at all times for no ants. The ant has lost site of the power of the river, of her powerlessness over the river, the log, and the other ants on the log, and feels that to surrender to the flow of the river and the inevitability of the log’s path would be giving up, not trying, irresponsible, shirking duty, selfish, and bad, bad, bad. If she stops pretending to have control over things she cannot control, she will have to admit that she is hurtling down the river with no idea of what’s going to happen and completely at the mercy of the rivers currents, bends, and eddies. This Ant is a fighter, an empath, a fixer. Lots of Ants love her for how hard she tries. Lots of Ants hate her for her meddling and self-righteousness. This Ant is selfless, or so it seems, but really she just seeks to heal her own suffering by focusing on the suffering of others - and it never works. She doesn’t know how to turn inward and take care of her own insides. Her energy comes in giant waves followed by crashes. She struggles with feelings of anger and resentment and wonders why nobody tries to take care of her? And when other ants do try, she doesn’t let them.
Drunk Ant: This Ant is also horrified by the existential crisis of having no control over the log, the river, or the other ants. But when those feelings come up, this Ant gets drunk. She can ignore the pain of existence, at least for an evening, and live like tomorrow doesn’t matter. Again and again and again. This ant wakes up in the morning and tries to stare at life squarely, but is smacked with the unmanageability of the whole affair, and so just anestetizes those out of control feelings again. She thinks she’s connecting with the other ants, commiserating, sharing in common experience, but she’s retreated to an internal space of numbing and dissociating. She drinks over and at everything. She appears allergic to her feelings when sober and shares them, sloppily and confused, when drunk. Swaying in front of her sister ant, half in the bag, she laments the state of the log and the other ants on it, she waxes poetic on how she would solve the problems, she cries but also feels detached from real emotion, and then she wanders dangerously close to the edge of log, comfortable with being careless with her life.
Numb Ant: The Ant who is sober so can’t kill her feelings with alcohol but also can’t quite feel them and is really tired from managing so numbs out in 1,000 other ways. Food, sex, scrolling, sleeping, staring into space, playing Wordle compulsively, shopping, gambling… you get the drift.
Conscious Ant: This Ant reveres the River and the Log. She taps into the power that forged the river and directs the water and planted the tree, knowing it is not hers to control, but to witness and sense and harness. She sits with suffering with compassion and acceptance, in both herself and others. She makes a home on the log and fills that home with love, play and presence. She tends to herself and her precious few with fierce devotion. She notices the behavior in other ants that brings agitation, frustration, anger, and asks herself where has she behaved that way and what does she need to do to show up in alignment with her ideals. She notices the behavior or suffering in other ants that bring guilt, people pleasing, and the urge to center another’s spirit over her own, and she asks herself how to honor the journey of the other in a way that allows her to come alongside as a walking partner rather than a donkey the other can ride. She extends loving-kindness to all the ants, especially the challenging ants. She doesn’t run all over the log looking to manage the ants or to despair about the trajectory of the log. She is right-sized*: not too big, not too little. Just one ant among many*. When encountering other ants, she is grounded in herself, playful, open. She is not interested in being drawn into controversy or trying to get other ants to think, feel, believe, as she does. She cares deeply about ants and she still desires for an end to suffering but her methods are sane. She makes individual choices that reflect her values. She votes. She donates. She can hold space for others to share and she can really listen. She only desires to bring a presence of healing and non-violence to any encounter. To share her experience and then detach from the outcome. She is gentle with her children. She is patient. She is wise.
It’s all about progress, not perfection*. I haven’t been the Drunk ant in 11 years. In early sobriety, I was the Captain and the Numb one in equal parts over the course of days or weeks. Huge pushes of managing followed by collapse into numbing. The more I grow my Conscious ant, the more the Captain and the Numb one step back. Thinking of myself as a little ant on a log helps me find perspective, compassion, and humor in my human condition.
* Little sayings from AA