I had been procrastinating about setting up my container garden this year. The ideal spot is near the front of my house. It is sort of triangular in shape with “a” being the shrubs against the garage, “b” being the driveway, and sort-of hypotenuse “c” being the curve of the sidewalk leading to the front steps. It is near the hose and gets intense sunlight during the summer months. We have a number of black plastic pots made to look like painted wood. Somehow over the winter, they had migrated to various parts of my yard. The tomato plants I bought a couple of weeks ago were somehow still doing well in their temporary pots. Cravings both for completing the circle and tidying my yard intersected with idle time on Sunday afternoon back in June, so I acted.
Two of the pots were under a big spruce tree in the back yard. Luscious tufts of clover were sprouting from the black soil in them. I dumped one pot and set it aside. The other had less clover, so I moved them out of the pot and left most of the dirt in. As I started to move the pots to the front of the house, movement caught my eye. Inside the emptied pot were dozens of tiny ants frenetically carrying ant eggs twice their size out. Inside the half full pot was the same vision of ant panic. I stood there for a moment and imagined what the ants were facing. In the one case, their world was literally turned upside down, their colony, once constrained to the dimensions of the pot and protected by it, lay crumbled and broken at my feet. The little boy in me poked at the pot-shaped dirt cake with my foot. A bit more disintegrated. A bit more ant panic ensued. I decided to dump the second pot there as well, rather than move the colony to the front and plant a tomato in it, reasoning that at least the ants would be in the same shady spot, if not the comforts of the pot. Being honest, I didn’t like the idea of digging into an ant colony to plant a tomato deep, for either me or the ants.
Sometimes, there is a direct and strong causal link to something we did. For example, if your cat is enjoying a nice nap on your bed and you lift up the blanket to dump her off and she runs under the bed, don’t be surprised if she draws blood with her razor sharp claws when you try to pick her up from under the bed with your bare hands.(1) A lot of times, though, things just happen due to coincidence, accident, or a confluence of conditions that lined up. The ants were just living their lives on Sunday, minding their own business one moment. In the next, they were salvaging as many of their future baby sisters as they could.(2) For my part, it was simple ignorance at first. I didn’t know the ants were in the pot, so I overturned it in order to recover the pot. In the second instance, I knew about the ants, but a bit of indifference played a role. I didn’t care enough to preserve the ants in the pot, so I compromised and dumped them out in the same spot. The action was not done out of malice, but it was definitely something that happened to the ants that they probably would not have chosen for themselves. In either case, the ants were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Perhaps several of them were born in the wrong place at the wrong time. None of us choose where or when we are born, as far as we know.
One of the things that has helped me cultivate a mind prone to equanimity (3) is the understanding that many disparate things lead to the circumstances that we experience now. A spark may light a blaze, but the fuel needs to be present and there needs to be plenty of air. When thinking about the past, it is useful to identify several underlying conditions that lead to a given circumstance. When you think about factors that lead to factors, the interconnectedness of everything starts to reveal itself. We live in a universe that is multivariate and interwoven. Clarity comes by recognizing that and connecting with it. With this, comes compassion, forgiveness, steadiness, and human connection. As the architect Mies van der Rohe said, “God is in the details.”
(1) This might be something I personally experienced, or maybe I just made it up.
(2) Ants in a colony are the children of a single queen. All of the workers and warriors are sterile females. Most of the eggs produced are female also, thus the ants were carrying their baby sisters. This is true of bees and wasps also. I learned this from Professor William Timberlake at IU in 1999, who introduced me to the work of E.O. Wilson.
(3) In short, equanimity is a condition of even-temperedness. It is a mind that is aware of the pulls of emotions, cravings, aversions, and circumstances and maintains its acceptance of things as they are. It comes from the recognition that circumstances change as the underlying conditions change. Regardless of how ecstatic or how anguished one might feel, a mind in equanimity stays connected and involved in the interconnectedness. Easier said than done, but there is joy in the effort.