Four Life Lessons We Can All Learn From Spiders

Insights from our eight-legged friends.

Dr. Audrey
Oct 2, 2019 · 6 min read

Today, fall sun streams through tall windows. From the sofa, I admire the golden glow and bask in welcome warmth. I watch as late September sunbeams sweep the room with yellow fingertips, touching each corner with light.

In the air, dust motes swirl. And spider webs appear.

There, on the ceiling. And there, in the corner of the window. Oh, and also there, along the wall’s far edge, and trailing from the tall glass shelf standing by the hall. In the golden light, the webs dance and turn, glimmering in the sun.

I sigh. I’ll have to get the broom and chair, stretching high to knock them down.

Why are they there? I wonder, studying the webs in wonder and annoyance. What’s their purpose? What’s the mission of these spiders and what is the purpose of their unwanted web weaving on my windows and walls?

I wanted answers. So I open my laptop and look into the world of the spider web.

The Lessons We Can Learn From Spiders

As I searched away, it became clear to me that there are four key lessons that we can all learn from the humble lives of our eight-legged friends.

1. If you’re a spinner, spin

Not all spiders spin webs; in fact, only half of the spiders do. Webspinners use silk to ensnare prey. Other species of spiders hunt their victims, or lurk and wait for prey to come to them.

Each type of arachnid is uniquely suited for and adapted to its hunting technique. A web weaver will always weave — it will not decide to suddenly chase its prey on multiple spider feet. A trapdoor spider will always trap. In this way, spiders differ from each other, yet remain true to their spidery selves.

Humans are amazingly adaptable creatures. We use brains, tools, and talents to interpret the world. This adaptability is both blessing and curse; mistakenly, we believe we can do anything. We also relay this myth to our children: “You can be anything you want!” we tell them. This is untrue.

All of us are bound by personal, biological, intellectual, emotional, cultural, and economic limits. Not every child will be president. Each of us, however, can use our unique blend of skills and experiences to derive meaning and purpose from life.

Case study: My mother was an R.N., certified in Germany, Canada, and the U.S. Genial, smart, and compassionate, she loved nursing. Several years into her career, she was asked to advance to administration. After 6 weeks, she gave up that high-paying position to return to the E.R. floor. “I missed my patients,” she said, “Caring for them, talking to them, making them laugh. No amount of money made office work interesting!” Though there was no doubt my mother could have stayed in management, she knew her skills, temperament, and practice were best suited to the work she loved best.

Spider takeaway: If you are a web spinner, keep spinning webs.

2. Walk the line

Spiders spin two types of silk. Dragline (or non-sticky) silk is the architectural support for a web. Stiff and dry, it forms the web’s foundation.

Viscid (or sticky) silk is the tacky, wet, flexible silk that creates the spiral shape of many webs. It’s this stickier silk that snares the spider’s prey.

Spiders spin both silks, and understand their differences. When walking their webs, spiders traverse the draglines, avoiding trapping themselves on the stickier strands of viscid silk. While not exactly walking the straight and narrow, spiders realize they must travel their stronger strands, avoiding entrapping themselves on the sticky parts.

Like spiders, our life webs are woven from strong and sticky strands. Our foundational threads derive from family, community, culture, education, faith, philosophy, and friendship. Over time, we mature into our beliefs and values, and walk a path reflecting those core beliefs (alternatively, we can choose to reject values and systems we find immoral, limiting, corrupt, or unjust).

Often, out of inexperience, ignorance, chance, or choice, we veer away from our foundational truths, ending in a trap. Whether crime, fraud, wrongdoing, violence, disorder, or addiction, those sticky cords can bind us in dark and hopeless places. Trapped or stuck, we can re-route ourselves, revisiting truer threads that support and sustain us.

Sometimes, we may choose to weave new paths to walk. These silken lines may prove stronger than the first.

Spider takeaway: Walk the line, or weave a new path. Revisit or re-route when stuck in sticky spots.

3. Build with beauty

Spiders weave ornate and intricate webs that rival — or exceed — human art. In fact, the spider’s name, arachnid, originates in Greek mythology.

Arachne in Greek Mythology: A skilled weaver, Arachne was a mortal woman who challenged Athena to a contest. Her finished tapestries proved superior to the goddess’s, and Arachne was punished, transformed into a spider that could forever weave masterful work.

Entomologists once believed spider webs were purely functional, created to trap prey, encase eggs, or provide protection. The webs orb spiders weave are especially complex and ornate, embellished with extra silk that glistens and glimmers in the light. Researchers named these decorations stabilimenta because they assumed these threads served some structural purpose, such as stabilizing the spider’s web. However, such stabilimenta are not found in the webs of nocturnal spiders (where they would not be visible), indicating these artistic touches may be beauty for beauty’s sake. Spiders, then, may very well be apt ancestors of Arachne, weaving not just for utility, but for the joy found in beauty and creativity.

Spider takeaway: Whenever and however you can, add beauty to the world.

4: Do the work, daily

Spiders are hard workers. They are the world’s most important predator of insects, keeping swarms of pests at bay.

Web-weavers are especially industrious. Most web-building arachnids must build or re-build their webs every day. For these spiders, the larger the web, the greater the energy expenditure. However, the cost-benefit is also high, for the larger the web, the greater the likelihood the spider will catch large prey — whether in the form of an uncommon insect, a bat, or even a bird!

Though most spiders subsist on two small insects per day, one large catch can provide enough nourishment to allow the spider to thrive, and even to reproduce. With great spider effort, then, comes great spidery reward.

We could do worse than follow the spider’s example. Perhaps, we can emulate arachnid ambition.

Spider advice for humans: Work daily, work diligently, and seek satisfaction with daily duty while preparing for a bigger catch. Much of life is delay gratification, and most of us find dedication to the daily grind frustrating. We wish and want it all — hopefully within the next 15 minutes or so. Wanting and waiting are life’s terrible twins, torturing the placid present with the tenor of tomorrow.

Usually, however, work comes far before the reward.

Consider. College classes (and papers and finals) before the degree is awarded. Internships come before the job offer. Practicing precedes performance. Rehearsal before production. Revision before the book is published. Planting, watering and weeding before a harvest. Even biology participates: pregnancy before birth. And this: life before death.

Spider takeaway: Work diligently and daily. A bigger web may (someday) catch the bigger bug.

A Spider’s Web, Revisited

Closing my laptop, I walk to the window. There, a long-legged spider crouches in a silken web. It glistens in the light.

I pause, admiring its ambitious art, its loops and curls, this spiral sewn of silk and steel. A sweep of hand could sabotage this spiralled home, could slay this web of spidery dreams.

But not today.

Today, fall arrived. Its gold-soft light spills through tall windows. Its beams bounce over webs that embroider our windows, walls, and shelves. Spiders dance along their threads.

Today, I let them spin.

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