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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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Love That Whispers Smiles Through Trees

I sat noticing only the passing of time
Lost in the chatter of a world unable to be silent and listen
I longed to stand to ease the discomfort of sitting
My body atrophied by lack of motion

Her little heart connected to mine
A pulsating surge of blood
Muscle memory remembered
The love that whispers smiles through trees

Wings reached out
Touching the wind that carries the soul
Stranded leaves floated amongst sunlit dreams
Waiting for death’s release

To return as a tree
Rooted in the knowledge of it is
Strong in the wisdom that it was
Growing steadily towards the hope of it will be

I wrote this thinking about one of my journeys back to Copán by bus after a long flight. I couldn’t stand sitting any longer, and so I stood for the last two hours, my head hanging out the window, truly feeling for the first time a sense of appreciation for the journey that I had so often dreaded due to its length. Looking outside the bus, I could see a different world than I had seen before when I had only viewed the outside looking through dirty windows. The beautiful lush greenery came alive, the rustling of the wind was a steady white noise invoking a sense of peace like running water. I turned around at one point, to look back into the bus I had perceived my prison, and I saw a little girl smiling so completely, so honestly at me that I smiled back, and our two hearts connected. She continued to watch me several minutes, standing in the isle instead of sitting with her parents. Each time I looked back, she was smiling.

One time I searched for her, and she was no longer there, and I felt something missing without her bright, joyous presence. I turned my head to peer back out through the window at the rolling landscape only to see a little heart shaped face looking at me a few windows down with an even more luminous smile, filled with pride that she too was now part of a world beyond the confines of the old man-made bus. Together we smiled at the nature surrounding us, the wind thanking us with its cooling breeze, occasionally looking to each other and widening both our smiles two-fold with the happiness of knowing another was feeling what each of us was feeling, to be so sure that in this moment, we were as humans should be, a part of nature instead of separate within our metal box.

Eventually, we did not look to each other as much. Instead we looked to the trees and mountains, satisfied enough to sense the other presence and wanting to soak it all in. The time came for the little girl to leave, only a few stops before my own, and as she left the bus, she turned to me and smiled again, as did her parents, waving to me as they left. Every few steps she would look back, smile, and wave as the bus slowly pulled away, continuing on its journey, and I would do the same. As she disappeared from view, I felt a part of me was left with her and a part of her left with me to fill the space. Together, we had shared the peace of true being, a moment of pure happiness I would never forget nor would she.

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