How Eating Mud Can Fill the Middle Class with Empathy

Sometimes I feel very little real connection to others’ suffering because it’s not in my face. I wake up in the morning, make coffee and listen to public radio. I yawn on the deck and look up at the stars. I scoot my kids out the door, and I go to a day job that is very low stress.

I suppose it’s odd to yearn for that connection to others’ suffering, but I do.

We’re all aware there’s tragedy in the world. There are people starving this minute as I type on an expensive computer with my belly full of pasta. It’s seems maniacally incomprehensible to have such extremes exist on the same globe, doesn’t it?

But when we think of the poor it’s a very human, natural response to feel somewhat disconnected. We picture masses of people we’ll never meet, right? We see the headlines and cringe, thinking to ourselves that it’s horrible as we eat our dinner.

We often don’t actually stop and “see” the people—the individuals who are suffering because we are so far removed from that narrative, and to be fair, it’s just a big responsibility to feel empathy for every last person in the world.

For me, avoidance is a self-preservation mode. Otherwise, my brain latches on to images of others’ suffering and doesn’t let go easily for years.

Years ago I was looking at a book about WWII, and there was a photograph that pulled such a guttural cry from me in front of my children I was moved to take the book and immediately throw it away.

The truth is, what I saw in that book still moves me to sobs even as I write this. It haunts me to this day knowing what I saw depicted in the photograph was something that actually happened.

Now I’m ashamed to admit I avoid watching the news or seeing any pictures that might be burned into my brain.  But so what if I’m sensitive? I should truly suck it up and let the world move me with its sadness.

Instead I choose to turn the channel, close the book, and look away and be distracted by life. I can click on Facebook and giggle and give a thumbs up, and the images of suffering or those in need quickly fade away.

What a shameful middle-class blessing.

My mom and dad came to visit recently, and they told me about their priest who had traveled to Haiti to serve the poor. They said the priest described how he met a mother who often mixed mud with water, forming it into what she called “mud cookies” for her kids as a way to have something—anything—to fill their little tummies.  

This image has been burned in my brain and I keep going back to it. I wonder what the mom is doing now. Is she crying? Is she holding her little guys, praying for sleep to ease the discomfort of hunger?

As a mama, I cannot wrap one morsel of my brain around that sort of sadness that mother must have. And she is not in the minority in Haiti and so many other countries around the world. This wasn’t one extreme case somewhere—it is often the norm.

As the priest told the congregation about the mother who made mud cookies for her kids, he proceeded to pull something out of his bag. He wanted the audience to really see Haiti’s struggles, so he went a step further and made a batch of the “mud cookies” and brought them in to show everyone, asking how they would like to serve that to the children in their life.

Man, that is so in your face! And the world needs more “in your face” doesn’t it?

What if all of us could tangibly see and feel each other’s hurts and deep sorrows in specific ways that get our heart’s attention? What that priest did was pretty powerful by presenting a gift of empathy.

When I was younger I had a vision of traveling the world, serving in the Peace Corps. As I sit here in my middle class home with the crickets chirping, I realize I’ve done very little that’s noble or helpful in my life. Not much of what I do goes beyond the scope of me.

I don’t hear the cries of the poor because I don’t allow myself to.

I selfishly focus on me, complaining I still have grad school loans to pay or I don’t know what to make for dinner this week.

I want to face the harsh images in the world because they’re not just images—they’re someone’s reality. Sure, I’ll cry and be horrified, but being horrified into action is a better way to spend my life than apathetically removed and exempt.

I’m in no position to run off and save the world, so my definition of action might be different than others. At this point in my life, “action” might mean simply being present and allowing myself to know the harsh realities instead of protecting myself.

In a perfect world, we all would gather together and take an actual bite out of those “mud cookies” to allow ourselves to put that woman’s burden on our hearts and tongues, experiencing the grit of the mud as it oozes onto our teeth the same way it does for her and her children.  

Would you do that? Will you seriously do that right now? Just stick your finger in the mud and lick it. Let it linger on your tongue to keep a small portion of the world’s problems present in your heart today. 

If we open ourselves to these discomforts of others, there’s no telling how our souls will respond.

I’m off to taste some mud now. I hope you’ll do it, too.

Please tell me if you did it. I want to hear about it.




About Rebecca Rine

Rebecca Rine is a nonfiction writer living in Dayton, Ohio, transplanted from Chicago. She contributes to the Dayton Daily News as well as public radio. Her first book of essays is called "Sunbathing in a Body Cast" and is currently working on a book about surviving divorce called "Face Your Divorce Poo." Yay!

2 comments on “How Eating Mud Can Fill the Middle Class with Empathy

  1. I think empathy is a crucial emotional skill to have, especially in our age of constant connection, where a tragic story is always a click away. I think the key is to feel for others’ suffering and to actually take action. Other people aren’t in a position to combat those obstacles, but as observers who feel for those struggles, we have the power to help.

    • It’s so ironic that in this age of constant “engagement” of social media, it’s easier just to click away from it. You’re so right. Yes, the key is to take it on and feel it rather than look away because it’s hard. It’s not hard to sit in a warm home and have all our needs met. What’s hard is feeding your kids mud cookies. Thanks so much for reading this and stopping by. Be well.

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