Over the past year, there is a small, but prolific pest that has made itself comfortable in my life. Ants. They’re a small, but mighty foe.
I grew up in Georgia, where fireants were a common part of life. When I moved to North Carolina, in my early twenties, I was thrilled to know that there were no fireants here. The ants in North Carolina were harmless. I could walk around barefoot in my yard, and I would never be bitten!
It seems, however, that over the past few years fireants have migrated northward, and about three years ago I noticed that mounds were beginning to form in my yard. What started as a small nuisance has become a full-out battleground as they have taken over my yard, my flower beds, and even my garden. Believe me, the joy of gardening is quickly taken away when, while digging up vegetables, one’s hands come up covered in ants!
To combat these ever-present but unwanted pests, my husband and I made raised bed gardens this year. I was full of hope. We sprayed our entire yard with ant spray, worked hard to put down tarps underneath the raised beds, and surrounded them with cement pavers. I even went so far as to spray organic ant spray all over the outside of the beds.
All of that work was to no avail. Within a month, the nasty little buggers had made themselves at home in not just one, but all nine of my raised bed gardens.
Some of my plants were happy to cohabitate with them, but they completely destroyed other ones. They maimed my okra, ate the roots of my broccoli plants, and made little mounds at the base of each of my green bean plants.
Unfortunately, my garden is not the only place I’ve found ants this year. This spring, while sitting at my desk at work, I noticed an ant crawl past my hand on the desk. Another walked across my laptop. My first thought was that I had accidentally brought them from home, but then I noticed a small trail of them marching in under the window. The room was treated, and soon they disappeared.
A month or two later, though, they were back. “You have got to be kidding me,” I thought. “What is the deal with all of the ants?” To make matters even more personal, no one else in the whole building was getting ants in their office. My office was the only one the ants seemingly liked.
The matter was soon resolved, but as I watered my garden one day, frustrated by the presence of the ants who were ruining my beautiful garden, I thought about how much ants seemed to be showing up and causing me annoyance. So, I prayed and asked God if there was something he was trying to teach me about the ants.
As often happens when I pray, I heard nothing in that moment, but that wasn’t the end of the story…
Late in the summer, my family was gathered at a friend’s house for a prayer meeting. Many families were gathered together that night for food and fellowship. We ended our time together with worship and prayer. As we prayed, I shifted forward on the couch, bent over my knees with my hands folded. I opened my eyes and looked down.
Right there, next to my foot was an ant. He apparently had a buddy, because soon there were two. Then I noticed a third. I glanced around the floor. There were none next to my husband’s feet, none elsewhere on the floor, or on the rug. I couldn’t tell where they were coming from, yet here they were congregating around my shoe.
By now, I was baffled. I prayed again silently, “Lord, what are you trying to teach me about ants? I know you’re trying to tell me something, but what? Here I am at a prayer meeting, and I’m the only one in the room with ants around my feet!”
Just like that, the answer came to me, quickly and silently. The ants represented distraction. While I was watching the ants at my feet, I had completely lost track of everything else that was happening in the room. I no longer knew what we were praying for, and I was mentally and emotionally disconnected from the present moment.
In my office, the ants took my attention away from my work. It’s difficult to write notes or be present with clients when you’re noticing a line of ants crawling across the floor.
And in my garden, they were trying to steal my joy. Gardening for me is nourishing. It is beauty. It is soul-care. Battling anthills distracted me from enjoying my plants.
Unfortunately, ants are not my only form of distraction. I spend much of my life distracted, and the distractions come in all forms: emails, social media, texts, notifications, to-do lists. I even get distracted by my own thoughts.
Ironically, in the therapy world, we have an acronym for unwanted negative thoughts that pop into our minds: ANTs. It stands for Automatic Negative Thoughts. We all have them. Each of us have our own brand of ANTs. They march through our brains, daily, and we must choose how to combat them, or how to let them go without paying them mind.
In our lives today, there is a constant fight for our attention. The battle is harder than for any previous generation. Distractions abound from without and within. We alone can choose where to place our attention. As Curt Thompson says, “Pay attention to what you pay attention to.” Where we place our attention determines how we will live our lives.
Believe me, my war with the ants is not over. Thankfully, for the winter our battle will at least take a hiatus. My war on distraction, however, is an ongoing one.
Only I can choose each moment what most deserves my attention.
As distractions come and my focus shifts, I can gently direct my attention back to where it needs to be. Back to the present. And I hope today, friend, that you remember that you can too.
Pause: Take a deep breath and allow yourself to pause for a moment. Let the distractions fall away.
Renew: What distractions are vying for your attention these days? Where do you want to be focusing your attention?
Next: As you notice that your mind has shifted focus away from the present moment, and onto the distractions of your day, gently shift your attention back on target. As we discipline our minds by gently shifting our attention, we are training ourselves to value the gift of the present.