Updated: Feb 17
Revisiting a classic fable – The ant and the grasshopper (by Nathalie Cordell)
I love a good fable. I love the whimsical nature of the story with talking animals. I love their symbolism and, of course, the moral at the end.
Growing up in France, I was immersed in them from a very young age. From the first year of primary school (around 6 years old), we had to learn classic poems by heart, to recite in front of the class. Fables by Jean De La Fontaine (a French poet who was born just over 400 years ago) would always feature. Most of his stories were adapted from Aesop’s tales and turned into poetic fables, with a nice rhythm and rhyme to them (think Julia Donaldson), which made them even more attractive to read and learn.
I can still recall many of them now: the crow and the fox, the heron, the fly and the coach, the fox and the stork, and many others. And I can still remember some of the words, many years later!
The ant and the grasshopper is one of those classics. It popped into my head as I was talking to my coach about balance. I thought everyone in the world knew this story, so I was surprised to hear she didn’t. If this story is also new to you, you can either Google it, or click here to get a copy of it.
All fables have a moral, a lesson to be derived from what the characters experience. They are meant to warn the reader against the pitfalls and dangers of ‘the real world’ and to teach certain values. Having them drilled into me from a young age, I realise how much they have shaped the way I view the world, what I consider right and wrong, good and bad.
'The crow and the fox', for example, warns against the seductive nature of flattery, which taught me to question the intentions of anyone who seems to be nice to me or appears to want to give me something for free. This is a useful discernment for a child (like 'don’t take sweets from a stranger'). But it can take on a different form and have a lasting impact as an adult. For example, part of me is always suspicious of compliments or positive feedback. So for a long time, it wouldn’t even ‘let in’ nor let me enjoy the positive, and would always focus on the negative and what there is to improve.
A pretty common paradigm in our society: if you are not working, doing and producing something, you are not adding value and therefore worthless.
Going back to the story of the ant and the grasshopper, what I took from it was ‘you need to work hard if you want to survive’, and ‘you must save for the rainy days’. Again, not a bad lesson and one from which I derive a high work ethic. But the other lesson I took was ‘singing and enjoying life is useless because it doesn’t bring tangible results, food you can eat’. And I think this is a pretty common paradigm in our society: if you are not working, doing and producing something, you are not adding value and therefore worthless.
No wonder I get client after client coming to me, craving peace and fulfilment but unable to get it because the ant inside them is constantly urging them to work.
Have you heard of the expression ‘having ants in your pants’? I’ve heard it spoken to fidgety kids who can’t sit still. Well, that anxious energy, that restlessness, that is the ant’s doing. It’s her job, to keep going, never sitting still.
In the story, I have always identified with the ant. From a young age, I would save my birthday money instead of spending it. I would save my chocolates, to be eaten one at a time, on special occasions. My brother would scoff all of his, only to tap me on the shoulder when his had run out, and ask if I would give him one of mine. And just like the ant, I would be outraged and keep my chocolates, telling him that he just had to save his, all the while feeling a mixture of guilt and envy.
I used to feel a mixture of pride and shame at my ant-like nature. But looking at the story now, I feel sorry for the ant and how she might be judged as a stern and uncaring character. In her relentless work, she sacrifices herself for the colony. She works humbly, and relentlessly, tending the earth to sow what is needed to grow and harvest to feed her family. There is love and deep purpose in that tending of the earth, though not everyone might see it.
If you have ever looked at an ant colony close by, you will know that when you look at a single ant, she appears to be moving randomly, back and forth, completely aimlessly. But when you look at the whole, you see order and structure; lines are being formed going from a source of food, back to the nest. And each little ant plays its part in the bigger purpose.
What has this got to do with balance? Well, in the story, there is no humility, love and higher purpose. These (very feminine) qualities have been forgotten. There is just focus, hard work, stinginess and resentment.
The grasshopper, on the other hand, is all about making music and singing, just for the sheer joy of it. He is all about enjoying the moment, the sunshine and the warmth of summer. And he shares his music with any passers-by, freely, without expecting anything in return. No stinginess there!
But, he gets so lost in it that he doesn’t see the time go and gets caught unaware by the winter, with no provisions. So there is no balance there either.
I adopted the hard stance of the working ant, and in doing so, I let the music-loving, joy-spreading grasshopper starve.
For the young me, that was another reason not to indulge in ‘aimless pursuits of pleasure’. I was not going to be caught unaware and suffer the humiliation of having to ask for help, only to be rejected. So I adopted the hard stance of the working ant, and in doing so, I let the music-loving, joy-spreading grasshopper starve. And as an adult, I held a fear that if I give in to pure pleasure, I might get lost in it and ‘never come out’ to harvest.
I believe we all have a bit of ant and grasshopper in us. And if you are feeling unbalanced, the likelihood is that one of them is starving.
In revisiting this story, I allowed myself to imagine a different ending, one where they would have a better relationship. Maybe the grasshopper could offer to help with the harvest by playing music and making the work more enjoyable and fun for the ants? And the ants, feeling happier and more productive as a result, would finally see what value he brought, and willingly share a portion of their harvest, without fear of running out?
I imagined different ways in which they forged a strong and mutually rewarding partnership, that each brought them more than they would have had on their own.
So I wonder – how do YOU relate to that story? How do the ant and the grasshopper manifest in YOUR life? And how can you build the relationship between them?
If you want a copy of the story that inspired this article and/or you want to be notified when I publish the next one, click here.