There’s a biology term – “circular mill” – that describes how a group of army ants, if separated from their colony, can wind up marching in an enormous circle, each ant perpetually following the ant in front of it.
It’s something I first learned about in school. But when I came across it again recently, while reading James Surowiecki’s book, The Wisdom of Crowds (Anchor, 2005), it struck me with new, and very human, significance.
Surowiecki’s book describes the phenomenon this way: “Once they’re lost, [the ants] obey a simple rule: follow the ant in front of you. The result is the mill, which usually only breaks up when a few ants straggle off by chance and the others follow them away.”
If no one straggles, he notes, the ants — unaware that they are going nowhere — will continue to trudge in a giant circle until most have marched themselves to death. While Surowiecki illustrates this ant behavior in order to contrast it with the independent decision-making capacity of humans, the reality is that we humans are also rather vulnerable to marching in step with the society around us. And if we aren’t thoughtful and conscious about our decisions, we can easily follow the path of least resistance into cycles that do us more harm than good.
In modern societies all over the world today, busy people are conforming to cultural patterns of speed and convenience. These patterns, for the most part, have not done our health any favors. From the processed foods that rob our bodies of nutrients (and swell them with extra pounds) to the automated machinery that does most of our moving for us, we’ve fallen into some unfortunate habits. While some of these habits may allow us to “get more done,” many also appear to be doing us in.
Even with all the modern technology and science currently at our disposal, we are now suffering under more chronic illnesses and ailments — from heart disease and diabetes to obesity, depression and cancers — than ever before. Scientific evidence suggests that our lifestyle behaviors are largely to blame, but in many cases it may feel as though those lifestyle choices are being dictated by the culture at large.
The most convenient track is generally the road most traveled. It’s also got the deepest grooves, so it‘s rarely an easy path to leave. But if we follow an unhealthy track without questioning, we can end up in a virtual death march of our own.
The current norms call for us to eat fast food, packaged food, preservatives, artificial ingredients — and to eat enormous quantities of unhealthy sugars and fats for pure entertainment. The norms also call for us to be mostly sedentary (at work, at play and everywhere in between) during the vast majority of our waking hours. The norms call for us to get sick and tired and then reach for quick fixes. And finally, the norms call for us to put our concerns with material wealth far ahead of our deeper values for life balance and our priorities for spiritual, ethical and personal reflection.
The good news is, we are not ants. We do not have to blindly follow. The even better news: As more of us look up from the unsustainable path we’ve been on, as we choose to go down healthier paths, those healthier choices are becoming more visible and accessible.
Healthy choices are what this issue of Experience Life is all about. So I encourage you to spend some time with these pages, and also to spend some time reflecting on the path you are on now.
This year, instead of making a resolution to, say, lose 10 or 20 pounds or get six-pack abs, choose to choose: Look for ways that you may currently be allowing your life choices to be made for you. Select just one small choice to start with, and commit to shifting that choice in a more conscious direction. Once you are even a few steps off the beaten path of the circular mill, I think you’ll find your view — and your way of life — much improved.