The Peony and the Ant: A Life Lesson for Us All

Five years ago, Matt and I bought our house. While buying a fixer upper sounded fun at the time, it turned out to be a bigger project than either of us ever imagined. Early on in our renovations, neighbors poked their head around, likely wondering who was crazy enough to buy the overgrown house next door.

 

One of the first neighbors to welcome us was the sweet, older woman next door. When she came to our fence to say hello, she must have seen me staring in amazement at her perfectly manicured garden.

 

I’m not sure whether it was the look on my face or the overgrown disaster that was our new yard, but she somehow knew I had no idea what I was doing. She invited us over for a gardening 101 lesson, and I eagerly took her up on the offer. She walked us through her backyard, pointing out various plants. She showed us why she planted certain things where, and why others couldn’t be planted together. And she must have seen my eyes light up when she walked us by her peony bush. Because before I knew it, she was kindly offering to split the plant with us, giving us a starter bush for our yard.

 

 

As we transplanted the bush from her yard to ours, I got a closer view. I noticed several ants busying themselves on the unbloomed buds. I let out a bit of a shriek, not wanting to be near anything crawly. I started to shoo and shake the ants away before she stopped me.

 

“No no, the peony bush needs the ants!” she exclaimed. I did a double take, wondering if our sweet neighbor was one of those committed animal lovers who frowns on bug squashing. I paused for an explanation. She explained that the peony buds are enclosed in a thin layer of nectar and that the ants crawling all about is how the peony buds eventually blossom. I looked closer at the ants.“So for the peonies to bloom, they need the ants to crawl on them?” She nodded, and I think followed up with a detailed answer about exceptions and discrepancies to this rule.

 

But I wasn’t fully listening at that point, lost in reflection about what I just heard. For the beauty of bloom, the pesky ant must be welcomed and allowed a place to roam. If I’m going to enjoy the bright pink petals, I must also appreciate the ant. I can’t see it as a pest. I can’t shoo it away. Because it’s part of the process. It’s part of the beauty.

 

If I want the good stuff, I have to not only tolerate the tough stuff, but also welcome it. This is the lesson of the peony and the ant. Whether fact or gardening folklore, this relationship offers us an important lesson. Some of our biggest challenges give way to our greatest gifts. Some of our hardest struggles give way to our most meaningful growth. We cannot have beauty without discomfort.

 

Think of a moment or experience in your life that has brought you joy. My guess is that just before then, there was a struggle. An obstacle. An ant. And in the end, that struggle and the emotions you felt, made that experience that much sweeter. An act of courage felt braver, because you’d spent so much time being afraid. A relationship felt sweeter and deeper, because you’d felt alone and unseen for so long. And an accomplishment was more meaningful because you struggled and stretched to make it happen.

 

While we’d often prefer a life with no ants or challenges, think of the beauty that would be left undiscovered without them?

 

So what if instead of shooing away life’s challenges, we embraced them? What if we expressed gratitude for the struggle, knowing its part of what makes the outcome so sweet? What if we welcomed life’s ants, knowing that they were somehow going to make us more beautiful?

 

If you’re currently struggling in life, I encourage you to slow down. Be curious. How you can you welcome this season of struggle, just as the peony welcomes the ant? How can you find meaning in something that you’d just rather shake off and shoo away?

 

It’s been five years since that first gardening lesson. And I’ve learned that there are mixed opinions on the tale of the peony and the ant. Some experts say peonies can still bloom without the ants, while others see value in their symbiotic relationship. Either way, the peony and the ant have found a way to coexist. To help each other. To share a space in this life.

 

So every spring, as our front garden blooms, I head out to check our plants. And while I normally shy away from creepy crawlies, I always get excited to see the ants scurrying about our peonies. Because I know that goodness and beauty are near. I know that the ants are temporary, and their nuisance won’t last forever. I remember that just on the other side of that pest is something beautiful.

 

What ant are you currently struggling to tolerate in life? How might you see this pest differently, welcoming it as a part of your journey?

6 Comments

  1. Jordan

    It feels quite tone deaf that you’d advertise this as a timely and personal post. In a week when two artistic icons commit suicide, you, as a “man Tal health professional”, ignore them?!

    1. Dr. Allison

      Jordan,

      Thanks for you comment. The deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have sent shockwaves through much of the world this week. And they’ve sparked some important and difficult conversations about suicide and the culture in which we support people who are struggling. This coming Tuesday’s post is devoted to the topic of suicide and a lot of the important things to know, do, and be mindful of. I had several people reach out requesting a post around this topic, and I wanted to respond thoughtfully and thoroughly in a comprehensive post. So know that I am not ignoring them, but working to respond thoughtfully, adding something of value to the meaningful conversation.

      I hope you’ll come back and read Tuesday’s post.

  2. Peggy

    Love your story of the ant. It made me also think of having a baby…labor can be tough…then, the beautiful baby:) When I think about it, most of the good things in life, I have had to work hard for. Some are simple like painting a room. Some are much harder. I appreciate your post on suicide–touches so many lives. My son buried a good friend due to mental illness yesterday–a great loss:( Thank you–your posts inform, inspire and comfort.

    1. Dr. Allison

      Peggy, I’m so glad you enjoyed this post, and I loved your example, so true! I’m so grateful to have you reading and commenting here, your comment made my day. Inform, inspire, and comfort…that’s exactly what I strive to do here on Dr. Allison Answers. Have a wonderful day!

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