The Honduran Dung Beetle: Reflecting on Human Suffering and Empathy

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(Photo borrowed from Society of Biology)

As a young girl, I used to go to a horse camp during the summer. Occasionally, I would receive mail, and as part of camp fun, those who received letters or packages would have to do embarrassing things like sing in front of everybody before they would be given their mail. One thing you might be asked to do is lie on your back and pretend to be a dying cockroach. I was often asked to do this never really knowing what a cockroach looked like or how it died, only observing others and doing the same. Here in Honduras, I have witnessed not only cockroaches dying, but several different varieties of beetles. These insects all dying with their legs in the air that used to terrify me have now become a source of fascination to me, especially the dung beetle.

I see dung beetles’ too heavy bodies trying to fly through the air, running into walls, without any clear destination, often crash landing in the most dangerous and inconvenient locations, their bodies too heavy to fly efficiently. They struggle to move from one area to another, completely chaotic in their journey. Most often, I will see the beetle a day later lying on its back in the dying cockroach form, legs frantically scrambling, hopelessly trying to flip back on its feet. As the hours pass, eventually the movement slows, the beetle too tired to make any further effort, but if you just nudge it, again the legs will be moving as though that touch rekindled a sense of hope.

At first, I used to sweep these bugs out the door, but after watching them on a daily basis, I have begun to see how they struggle, sometimes taking days to die, and I have developed empathy for them. Yes, empathy. These hard-shelled bugs that look so tough seem to be rendered helpless so easily. Several times I have flipped them back over on their stomachs hoping they would crawl away, but once they have been vulnerable and on their back their chances of survival are slim. No matter how many times I flip them over, sometimes every few seconds, they will eventually fall onto their backs again, legs in the air struggling. Yet, I cannot help but try to flip them over again even knowing their fate. Sometimes I wonder if it would be kinder to kill them knowing they will inevitably die, but I cannot bring myself to do it, so I just keep flipping them over, hoping one of them will walk away.

It is amazing to me that the dung beetle, which can pull 1,141 times its own weight, making it the strongest insect and animal on earth in comparison to body weight, can be so incredibly weak. It makes it hard to believe they can live for a year or more as I look at them in this state. Supposedly, they are so vulnerable in a house because of the lack of things to grab onto. In the wild, with plants surrounding them, they can right themselves by grabbing on to leaves and branches, so I have started returning them back to their natural habitat hoping then they might have a chance.

I see their struggle very human. I feel we too, once damaged or set back, flail with our feet in the air, maybe not literally, but definitely figuratively. We flounder about trying to balance ourselves. A beetle may take several days to die in this state, but we as humans take years, decades, sometimes recovering, but very often slowly dying, unable to see a way out. Once back on our feet, we then have to rebuild the muscles and learn again how to walk, sometimes making embarrassing mistakes, feeling like a child, vulnerable. I often wonder if I turned a beetle onto its feet again enough times if it would eventually regain the strength to hold itself up and walk away, or if I am too late and the lack of effective leg use while on its back has rendered the dung beetle helpless.

Observing the dung beetle makes me think of humans and their own suffering thresholds, their own living and dying. I believe there is a threshold of human suffering for each individual which if reached can render them helpless and dead spiritually, emotionally and/or physically, but there is always that last minute spark that can save them as well. Each person is different, but I feel we all have this threshold, and so I ask myself several questions which I now propose to you. What is that threshold that renders you helpless? How many times must people be supported after rendered helpless before they can stand on their own again? How many people will observe someone suffering and do nothing? Who will be the one to do something? What is that threshold where empathy and compassion turn to effective action and the people of the world truly live out their full potential? I think of these questions as I look at the dung beetle, and I wonder what my own thresholds are and how much support I need to regain my strength once I fall. Life’s struggles and its purpose are a mystery to me, but I feel the answers lie in reconnecting with the nature that surrounds us which humans so often claim to be above or better than. When you look deeply at the nature around you, you will find honest reflections of yourself.

Other blog post on suffering threshold I found interesting: The Value of Suffering and the Importance of Suffering Thresholds

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