Stories we carry: of ants and kings


Timur chilling with ants. Original image here.

I don’t usually take my advice from brutal Mongol warlords, but one story I was taught as a child will always remain with me, that of Tamerlane and the ant.

While many versions exist, the story goes that Tamerlane (also known as Timur), a fierce and feared warrior, had been defeated in a battle. With many comrades already fallen, and his dastardly enemy swarming around him, Tamerlane hid amongst the rubble of a building, not daring to move or breathe heavily lest it betray his presence.

It was there that he saw nature’s most pint-sized weightlifter – an ant – lift a corn kernel 50 times its weight over its head and attempt to climb vertically up a nearby wall. But gravity was not kind to the ant and it fell.

Undeterred, the ant hoisted the kernel back on its head and tried again.

Again it fell.
It tried again.
Again it fell.
It tried again.
Again it fell.

Tamerlane was astounded – how could this little pipsqueak of an ant not give up? The odds were stacked so highly against it! He kept count as the ant fell, got up and tried again.
40 times, yet the ant did not give up its battle against this unrelenting wall.

On and on it went, until on the 70th try, the ant finally succeeded, triumphantly lifting itself and its golden treasure over and above the wall, until eventually it could no longer be seen by the watchful Tamerlane, and presumably going on to become a celebrity in the ant world (at least, I like to think that).

Tamerlane was taken aback by this herculean ant and realised that the secret to its survival lay in its tenacity and perseverance. It was this insight that encouraged him to not give up, that if he truly wanted to restore the Mongol dynasty, like the ant he must rise again despite losing this battle. Thanks to this tiny ant, Tamerlane regrouped his army, eventually founding the great Timurid Dynasty (oh and slaughtering an estimated 17 million people along the way – this part of the story is usually left out ;)).

For me, there are a number of other important lessons to draw from this story, the most important being that the ant needs to rethink its route and build a better transportation system.

Ok, ok, I’ll be nice to the ant :).

Really, the biggest lesson is that our judgement of people’s capabilities is often marred by our stereotyping and categorising. The ant here initially is viewed by Tamerlane as a tiny and helpless creature, and while I don’t know the man personally (thank God), I’m pretty sure that prior to this tale, Tamerlane wouldn’t have cared zilch if he’d stepped on hundreds of its brethren. It is only through taking the time to observe and thus become more ‘intimate’ with the life of this ant that Tamerlane was better able to understand it and learn from it.

The other important lesson is knowing what we should carry. Were the ant to carry a rock, what purpose would that have served it (unless of course it was building the new route)? Its perseverance was directly linked to and rewarded by the nourishment it sought from the kernel.

It is this lesson that I am finding the hardest to learn. I am currently struggling big time with heavy thoughts I am carrying in my head, thoughts that do not nourish me, but rather like tar and stone can only ever weigh me down and bury me.

Like the ant, I need to learn to persevere only with those thoughts that nourish my mind, my limbs, my belly, my heart. In other words, only those that will serve me and get me over my self-constructed walls so that I will get to enjoy and appreciate all the good things in my life – my very own golden kernels :).

Love and let love,


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