Saving ants - On Jane Hirshfield poem: Today, When I Could Do Nothing

Ah kindness and its limitations! Reading Jane Hirshfield's "Today, When I could do nothing" once again. I am posting the poem and then some of my thoughts on it below. 

Today, When I Could Do Nothing

Today, when I could do nothing,
I saved an ant.

It must have come in with the morning paper,
still being delivered
to those who shelter in place.

A morning paper is still an essential service.

I am not an essential service.

I have coffee and books,
a garden,
silence enough to fill cisterns.

It must have first walked
the morning paper, as if loosened ink
taking the shape of an ant.

Then across the laptop computer — warm —
then onto the back of a cushion.

Small black ant, alone,
crossing a navy cushion,
moving steadily because that is what it could do.

Set outside in the sun,
it could not have found again its nest.
What then did I save?

It did not move as if it was frightened,
even while walking my hand,
which moved it through swiftness and air.

Ant, alone, without companions,
whose ant-heart I could not fathom—
how is your life, I wanted to ask.

I lifted it, took it outside.

This first day when I could do nothing,
contribute nothing
beyond staying distant from my own kind,
I did this.

My Thoughts

In the song Phulko aakha ma says “let me never kill an ant by unknowingly walking on it.” I find it endearing that in their vast compassion Buddhists find saving ants important. But Jane Hirshfield questions if actively saving an ant is a useful act. 

We think we are saving ants. And that trivial pursuit may make us proud. But, actually are we in control? We had other important things to do; but because everything was shut down we needed to do something kind. So we save an ant that was crawling on the couch. We picked it up and dropped it outside.  However, we then realize, that we didn't really save the ant. The ant is as alone outside as it was  inside. He will not find his family again.  He will be alone and likely die alone.  What then did we save? Was this compassion useless?

“I know that heaven does not exist,” says Mirza Ghalib in his famous ghazal. “But it is a still great way to keep your heart happy.” When we think we are being kind, when we give ourselves the credit, is the compassion useful?  In any case, I think I'll leave saving ants to Jane, and I'll take a few cisterns of silence to fill my singing. 

The purpose of life is to sing!