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The thin line of healing

Have you heard of the Matabele ants which live in sub-Saharan Africa? No? You should know about them for they can teach us something wonderful about life. These ants are ferocious warrior ants which attack termite colonies and feed on them.

In doing so, some of them get bitten by termite “soldier” ants whose job is to defend their colony from attacks. A fascinating study by Erik T. Frank has revealed something amazing about these ants. After a battle-style attack, they don’t leave their wounded companions behind. They carry them back home to care for them until they are able to look after themselves.

Once they are back in their own ant nest, they “take turns caring for their injured comrades, gently holding the hurt limb in place with their mandibles and front legs while intensely ‘licking’ the wound for up to four minutes at a time”. In a paper published by Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Dr. Frank and his colleagues say how “their study marks the first time non-human animals have been observed systematically nursing their wounded back to health.”

In his book Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, Paul Brand, a pioneering surgeon in reconstructive surgery for leprosy patients, recounts how he had once found a box of skeletons in a monastery. His findings reminded him of the anthropologist Margaret Mead who once asked her audience what they thought was the earliest signs of civilisation. Much to the surprise of the audience, Dr. Mead said that it was a healed leg bone! Apparently healed leg bones were not found in the remains of savage, competitive societies. The healed femur showed that someone must have cared for this injured person — hunted on his behalf, brought him food and helped him with other personal activities. Savage societies could not afford such compassion — for theirs was the survival of the fittest; every person for himself/herself.

The skeletons that Dr. Brand found showed “thin lines of healing” — evidence that someone had helped these victims — perhaps they were wounded soldiers far from home. There had been a group of monks who had lived in the area 500 years earlier who had tended to them. The “thin lines of healing” show us what kind of community lived here — caring, compassionate, interactive with one another.

Many of us live in gated communities, blocks of flats with every kind of facility. But what kind of communities do we live in?

The whole idea of living in community is that we connect with each other, and are responsible for each other’s welfare, but today we live in more isolation than ever. How can we know what is going on in each other’s lives if we don’t talk to each other? How can we show that we are a part of each other’s lives? How do we recognise the wounded who walk among us so that we can reach out and tend to them?

So 500 years from now, what evidence of the “thin line of healing” will there be to show that we lived here ?

ushajesudasan@gmail.com

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Printable version | Apr 1, 2020 11:34:41 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/the-thin-line-of-healing/article30652008.ece

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