“Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.” ~Jean-Paul Sartre
“So did you figure out what your shadow totem is?”
This was the first thing out of my husband’s friend’s mouth as I sat down to dinner at a local downtown restaurant, across from my husband and a couple friends we were meeting up with.
I laughed at the choice of question but then paused with wide eyes and replied, “YES, I DID! Oh my gosh. It’s an ant!”
The backstory is that we had previously had a conversation about animal symbolism, and how figuring out what we identify with (spirit animal) or most fear (shadow totem) can help us gain deep insights into ourselves. I had no trouble with identifying my spirit animal—an eagle—but could not for the life of me pin down my shadow totem.
As he asked that question that evening, a light bulb in my head went off. I had been battling a multi-week-long ant infestation in my home and it had become the bane of my existence. Every time I saw one of those suckers, I got triggered all over again. It ruined many days. So this made perfect sense! Ants are my shadow totem. But why??
Upon reflection about this realization, I mulled over the meaning of this and was able to come away with some pretty incredible nuggets. Put simply, the ants struck me at my weakest point: my need for control.
I know I’m not alone in this quirk—“control issues,” as a lot of us jokingly refer to them. But the truth is, if you’re saddled with this deep urge then you know you live your life on a high wire, trying to balance everything and keep it perfectly just so. And when you are thrown off, you take a pretty deep dive into mental chaos until you right the ship again. Okay, too many metaphors, but the point is, it sucks.
Back to the ants. Days after the dinner I took time to think about the true meaning of them as my shadow totem. The insights I had about my control issues were not only helpful to me, but I bet will be the same for you!
I was even able to identify three mindset adjustments as an accompaniment. I noticed they tend toward the Buddhist way of thinking but are just truly solid ways to approach life. So here we go!
1. The ants were coming out of nowhere. And FROM ANYWHERE. It drove me nuts since I couldn’t identify the source of the problem.
Upon reflection, I connected this to how I often feel like a sitting duck in life, just waiting for the next blow to come. The unpredictable nature of things feels like a constant threat. Also, I notice I often doggedly search for the “why” of things, but sadly am not always able to come up with an answer.
I’ve felt this sentiment in many situations, ranging from the trivial to the most profound, with the latter being when I had a miscarriage. It was (as many of them are) not possible to tie to a definitive reason. In this case, my only true course of action (one easier said than done) was to accept and move forward.
Acceptance, though not a sexy response to the above, is really the best one. You’re gonna get ants in your house (especially when it’s in a green community built in 1936!).
In life, you’re gonna get surprises. And not always happy ones. I once heard that if you can expect the unexpected, when it comes, you will accept it as an “old friend.” Sounds much better than treating life’s downs (the “ups” are more easily handled, right?!) as a monster under the bed.
2. The dang ants were ruining my days. What a waste! But true.
I felt silly with my outbursts, exclaiming expletives each time I came across one of those evil little things. My poor husband (who has the patience of a saint, zen master, and probably Jesus, combined!) hearing me from the next room. I didn’t want this for me (or him).
Just like in my larger life, small things going wrong can really mess me up. The feeling of having a bad day rather than just keeping it a bad moment is one I am familiar with, unfortunately.
Enter mindfulness. This handy strategy allows for a sort of compartmentalization so we can fully be in the reality that is in front of us in the present moment. The truth is, the ants were really only in a couple rooms of the house, and I only encountered them for maybe a couple minutes out of my day. But MAN, you wouldn’t have known it!
Attaching to our day being or staying a specific way is certain death. Okay, that’s extreme, but it’s cause for certain anxiety. And that’s no way to live this short life. Key principle: impermanence. Funnily enough, I have that word tattooed on me! In permanent ink… but is it “permanent”? I digress.
3. I chose a treatment option for the ants, but still I walked around in a huff about it. I had done all I could do—why couldn’t I let it go?
I frequently find myself ruminating on other things in life long after I had chosen a course of action. Sounds like a waste of mental, emotional, and even physical (if you’re pacing!) energy to me.
Like when I made the decision to switch careers from business to education. Questions lingered, swirling in my head for quite some time after: “Is this a mistake?” “What if I want to change my mind again?” “Did I just waste my bachelor’s degree?” This made the path forward foggy and uncertain when what I needed was clarity and smooth sailing—which would have been afforded to me had I had self-trust at the time.
Hard as it is, the practice—keyword, PRACTICE—must be letting go with the knowledge that you can only do so much. There are so many sources of inspiration for this concept. Take your pick: The famous quote “Let go and let God” or “Let it goooo” a la Frozen (any other parents in the house?). You get the idea.
Also, add to the mantra list that nature will always win. This is true with the ants (spoiler alert, they came back) and with life in general, the universe on a broader scale. Think entropy. It’s everywhere in all ways. The sooner we align ourselves with the concept, the better!
I felt oddly grateful to the ants for the opportunity to reflect. It gave me a chance to gain insights that I (and maybe you!) otherwise would not have had. If you’re worried about us forgetting this wisdom, don’t be. Those little reminders (aka the ants) are always around the corner.
Post-writing edit: Funny thing is, right after writing this, I walked into my bathroom and saw an ant making its way up the side of my mirror! Poetic, huh?