Over Christmas, a couple of friends and I took a trip to a farm called Riverstill. The farm is near the South Africa-Botswana border, a 500-mile dust trail patrolled by scorpions, a few cattle and giant ants the size of a person’s pinkie fingernail. On Christmas morning, I sat on the riverbank to think. After a few minutes, I noticed the patch of dust to the right of my thigh, which had been bare, had suddenly sprouted an anthill.
I’ve always been fascinated by ants: not by their discipline but by their product. Ants are artists. They could just throw the dirt they evacuate from their nests out of the hole, like gophers do, but they don’t. Some are potters: Harvester ants make beautiful, near-symmetrical concentric circles from the mud, like the ribbed vases sold in high-end ceramic studios. Others are sculptors, wrapping moist dirt particles around the tiniest of sticks to create oblong pellets. And still others are architects, molding bits of detritus into convex shapes so rainwater can run off. Ants remind me of a few people I know who are unwilling to see anything in their worlds go unused or unloved. They make elaborate statues out of restaurant straws or fold every piece of junk mail into origami before throwing it away. At the Riverstill farm, the giant ants by the river made a heap of arresting little balls, perfectly round as tapioca pearls.
Humans tend to think our bragging point, as a species, is that we create. We solve problems, we improve ourselves and our societies, we make art. I read a book on this theme called “Mastery” by Robert Greene, one of the last decade’s most enduringly popular self-help books. In it, Greene proposes that what separates people from animals is that animals suffer from “passivity,” from the failure to see the world as a canvas for their self-expression or betterment, whereas humans are “creative.” Animals, he claims, “live in the world as it is,” “locked in a perpetual present,” “easily distracted by what is in front of their eyes.”
Fortunately, he writes, “our ancestors overcame this basic animal weakness … they became more creative.” Where a cockatoo sees just a stick, or maybe a perch, we see one half of a potential device for whipping up a fire, and thus a feast, and thus steel forges and steam trains and civilizations.
This is the season of New Year’s resolutions. For most of us, that takes the form of plans, of projects, of dedication, however brief, to creation and self-improvement. One friend of mine resolved to make $70,000 by freelance consulting and get strong enough to do crow’s pose in yoga. Another resolved to write more blogs and articles. Yet another posted a video on Facebook outlining his broad resolution “to become more proactive.”
“I am unfortunately a little bit of a procrastinator,” he spoke mournfully into his iPhone lens. Its fluorescent flash lighting and slight fish-eye distortion gave the video the look of a jailhouse confession. His expression was downcast. “I come up with these great ideas, and then I lack the ability to follow through.” He is a physician, so his first effort to fulfill his resolution consisted of broadcasting a health tip for his patients and other viewers. “So today,” he said, without a hint of irony, “my first tip is around the concept of acceptance.”
“Sleep is the only proper realm for inactivity,” the psychologist Erich Fromm declared in the ‘50s; by now we have fully internalized this so-called truth. We worship activity, creativity, or, to lift a phrase from another big, recent self-help book, “generativity”; we act as if we are nothing unless we are constantly reorganizing, altering or impressing ourselves upon our environment. One person I know has made her career leading “feminine power” courses, the idea being that femininity literally doesn’t exist unless it exerts power. We’re driven, in part, by the idea Greene articulates explicitly: If we’re not constantly doing, we will die. If we’re not changing ourselves or the world around us, then we are essentially making things worse, falling asleep at the wheel, betraying the essential potentiality of our humanness. “The moment you rest, a part of your mind enters a phase of decay,” Greene warns. “You will lose your hard-earned creativity and others begin to sense it.”
I felt that pressure even on vacation. At one point, one of my friends came to join me at the river. The place, and the moment, was beautiful, and I found myself seized by the need to say something to him about it. These observations were very banal. “The sky is a gorgeous color this afternoon,” I chattered. “If you dive down deep, you’ll feel the water at the bottom is colder than at the top.” “Did you notice this new anthill?” But the feeling was utterly clear: If I didn’t make reality by commenting upon it, then both it, and I, would somehow lose something essential, or vanish.
As I looked at the ants, though, I began to think that humans’ special capacity, if there is such a thing, isn’t really pure creativity but just the opposite: appreciation or wonder. I suspect the author of “Mastery” has never owned a pet, or else he never would have said what he did about animals. Out here on the Botswana border, there are far more animals than people, so it’s a useful place to remind us what animal nature really is. Greene says the great danger for human beings is to “give in to feelings of fear, boredom, and confusion,” because that’s what animals do. Well, the ants I watched for a full half-hour on Christmas morning never rested. The weaver birds that darted back and forth across the moss-green river — little yellow sparrowlike creatures who build pocketlike nests on the ends of branches that they scrape clean with their beaks so they can more easily see snakes — prowl the world regarding everything for its potential use: a dry leaf, a string, a leftover gift-wrap ribbon are all things to pluck up to be woven into a nest.
Animals, as anyone who spends real time with them can tell you, are total schemers. Elsewhere in South Africa, little gray monkeys work in teams, one distracting a human by rolling around sweetly in the grass just like a human baby while the other drops from a tree behind the person’s back to purloin gum from her purse, or even the car keys. Growing up in Virginia, I had a cat who could assume what appeared to be a position of passivity for an entire day, nose pressed against the glass of the sliding door as she watched butterflies dance in the air over the backyard deck. She wasn’t just watching, though. She was plotting. Each butterfly represented potential: a little airborne potential snack. Sometimes she licked her chops, slowly. If I ever opened the door two inches, she’d be out like a bolt to fulfill her resolution, which she seemed to be able to hold in her mind with far more seriousness, dedication and efficiency than most of us ever do with the resolutions we tally up at New Year’s.
The French language has two different verbs for “to know.” The verb “savoir,” or “to master,” refers to the knowledge demonstrated by being able to solve a math problem, learn how to play the violin, earn $70,000 or do crow’s pose in yoga. It is, linguists say, “to know how.” “Connaître,” though, is different. It’s the kind of knowledge that is driven not by ambition or self-improvement but by emotion, even, often, by love. Linguists call it “to know that.” The French use “connaître” to say “I know that person” or “I know that city,” in a sentimental way. Paradoxically, it expresses the curiosity driven by the awareness that we can never know everything about the thing we want to know. A man can “know wine”; this is where our English word “connoisseur” comes from. But the wine connoisseur has not “solved” any problem, not created or bettered anything. He has only appreciated. He has just begun his journey.
Sitting at the river, I had an idea: What if I stopped saying anything, even though my fellow guest was there? While simple, this idea actually felt weirdly uneasy and radical at first: just to let thoughts and observations pass by. That the sky was beautiful; that there was, indeed, a new anthill and isn’t that neat, and not to point it out. We talk a lot, these days, about “speaking our truth,” and I think my uneasiness with silence arose from the feeling that if I didn’t say something, my friend would think me boring or look right through me, or I would somehow turn out to have no personhood, no essence, at all.
But I found, almost immediately, the opposite. I felt more peaceful. Settled. More full and expansive, because my experience included the experience of a whole scene, a vista, that was separate from me and wasn’t demanding my input. There could be an anthill, and I could not call attention to it, and it would still exist! It’s an amazing that this felt like a revelation to me, but in our contemporary context, it did. Beauty could exist without my making something out of it. Moments of my life could pass without me “making the most of them.” No cataclysm, either for me or for the world, would occur. Time, like the river, would flow on.
When a friend asked me what my New Year’s resolutions were, I felt stuck. I couldn’t come up with anything that felt truly important. I wasn’t sure I needed a checklist of more: more money, more self-consciously happy times with my boyfriend, a better marathon time, more articles published. At the farm in South Africa, I realized that in just looking at the anthill — not making it, not understanding it — I was doing what is, perhaps, most wonderfully human. That not doing might be what is most wonderfully human. Those ants might have been just looking at me, saying to themselves, “Look, there’s a new large creature overtop our anthill!” but I doubt it. They were looking for something useful, or to evade a threat. This capacity to look, without creating or bettering, is what’s expressed in the verb “connaître”: pure experiencing, wondering, awe.
I have heard that, as French undergoes Anglicization, the use of “connaître” is fading, replaced by “savoir,” or mastery. That’s a shame. We need more connoisseurship, less mastery. And I suddenly realized what I wanted my resolutions to be: less. Less expressing, more listening. Less accomplishing, more meandering. Less doing, more being. Less making, more watching.