Continued Learning (and its Companion, Running): A Reflection on “Imagos”, Life Cycles, Care, and Harm

“Learn and Run!” (Octavia Butler in Dawn).

Over the duration of this course, I have come to better understand myself as non-linear, much like the life cycle of an insect. I encompass countless cycles, including unsuspecting companions such as harm and care. The question of whether I am in the habit of getting “prepared to change and be changed” urged me to reflect on how I came to this understanding of myself. Through reading Octavia Butler’s trilogy Lilith’s Brood, contemplating on it, and writing about it, I absorbed different elements of the story, and applied them to myself. One element is the function of the third book’s title, Imago. “Imago”, Latin for “image”, may be an entomological term, referring to an insect in the fully-developed phase of its life cycle. It is also a psychological term, referring to a persistent and idealized mental image of someone. One of our course epithets was this quote from Butler’s “Furor Scribendi”: “First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not….Habit is persistence in practice. Forget talent. If you have it, fine. Use it. If you don’t have it, it doesn’t matter. As habit is more dependable than inspiration, continued learning is more dependable than talent.” As influenced by the companionship between habit and learning, one way I am enacting changing and being changed can be best expressed through “imago” metaphors:

I have a persistent mental image of who I should ideally be, constructed of internalized perfectionism, of which I know to be a manifestation of “imago”. But instead of ever reaching the promised perfected self, this “imago” deepens stagnation, pushing me into survival, rather than survival paired with flourishing. I have begun habitually challenging this “imago” with a focus on its second definition. I am challenging my mental image of my ‘ideal’ self to look more like an insect, immersed in moving towards full development in some ways, and, at the same time, open to the other stages of its life cycle. Learning is similar to an insect’s life cycle. I am striving to learn more, developing my understanding of different subjects in different ways. “Continued learning” is a life cycle. Embarking on the journey of learning new things is like being in the egg or larvae stage. Growing through learning brings you to the “imago” stage, and the metamorphosis of understanding starts over and over again. 

A life cycle is multifaceted, as countless different aspects of myself are in different phases (I think of the typical multifaceted insect’s eye). I want to release the idea of having to be one ideal thing to make space for two; to make space for simultaneous dimensions of change, all at different phases in their cycle. I want to remember the dangers that come with holding yourself to a single story- one chance to be perfect, one linear way to grow and to learn- as Chimamanda Adichie’s talk “The Danger of a Single Story” discussed, and as Butler embodied in the different narrative points of views through the trilogy. This sentiment reminds me of a particular quote near the end of Imago: “And [the seed] would need the space the valley afforded it to grow and mature” (p. 745). The seed for the town, much like me, needs space to grow. I know how to make space: through change. To make space, some things need to undergo diminution, and at the same time, others need to expand. I want to put the perfectionist “imago” under diminution and expand the cyclic, multifaceted one of learning. Another relevant quote on the same page reads “Here the town could grow and always have the companionship of some of us. It would need that companionship as much as we did during our metamorphoses” (p. 745). A companionship encourages change; it embodies the “both / and” concept we have pondered throughout this course. Habit and learning as companions prompt metamorphosis. Another companionship- one of our other course concepts- is harm and care.

Harm and care are often conveyed as mutually exclusive opposites. For example, there are simple scenarios that seem to confirm a care and harm dichotomy, such as, if a child hits another child for taking a toy they wanted, this is harm, and needs to be taught out of the child. But then there are scenarios that are much more nuanced, challenging this dichotomy. Cognitive-behavioral therapy challenges obsessive-compulsive thoughts and behaviors, and for an individual to newly defy these thoughts and behaviors, it is painful. Mentally and physically, it can cause distress due to heightened levels of anxiety. But in the long run, this pain ultimately ‘harms’ obsessive-compulsivity rather than the individual, through the development of coping skills. I found two particular incidents in Lilith’s Brood that challenge the dichotomy of care and harm. One is from the beginning, and the other is at the end. On pages 79-81, Butler writes, “On the back of her neck, she felt the promised touch, a harder pressure, then the puncture. It hurt more than she had expected…[After she awoke] she sat up carefully just in time to see Nikanj coming through a wall… “You’re so complex,” it said, taking both her hands. It did not point its head tentacles at her in the usual way, but placed its head close to hers and touched her with them. “You’re filled with so much life and death and potential for change,” Nikanj continued… “What did you do? I don’t feel any different…,” [said Lilith]. “You understand me,” [said Nikanj]. In simple terms, in order for Lilith to begin a new period of growth, there must first be pain. Lilith was afraid of this painful change that Nikanj was going to do, comparing it to the brain damage her husband Sam had suffered on page 78. I don’t think the change Lilith underwent can be classified as either care or harm in the long run, but as care and harm both. It is harmful to puncture an opening in someone’s body, but the change that subsequently unfurled was so dynamic, that it cannot be neatly placed into either category of harm or care, or even be considered to be the caring counterpart to the harm. Interestingly, after Nikanj fulfills the “promised touch” and Lilith regains consciousness, it uses its touch to ensure that Lilith is recovering okay. This is an example of how care and harm are less polar or linear, and more of a blending, fluctuating cycle. 

On page 738, Butler writes, ““I’m not sure I’ll forgive it,” Lilith said. But she was smiling…” The juxtaposition of Lilith’s words with her smile reminds me of the importance of intention, and how action and intention are entangled, giving way to the nuance of care and harm. Throughout Lilith’s Brood, harmful actions paired with ‘good’ (or neutral/ambiguous) intentions occur. For example, when Lilith buried her orange peelings in Tiej, she expected them to be “broken down by tendrils of the ship’s own living matter”. Instead, Lilith “poisoned”, as Kahguyaht says, the ground. Her intention could be considered caring, as she was burying her peelings to cover her trail, as she was not sure if Nikanj would be in trouble for allowing her to wander. But her burying the peelings “had caused harm”. Because the ship is alive, it feels pain. (Butler, pp. 67-69). 

The other course concept, of what brings and binds people together, is not necessarily implying willing, comfortable companionship. More uncomfortable dualities, like care and harm, companions in themselves, can bring and bind people together. “When the doctor first came to our household,” [Jdahya] said, “some of my family found her so disturbing that they left home for awhile. That’s unheard-of-behavior among us…They had never before seen so much life and so much death is one being. It hurt some of them to touch her…It was her genetic structure that disturbed them” (Butler, p. 26). The companionship of life and death harmed Jdahya’s family members. And according to Jdahya on page 38, it harmed humanity, as well: “You have a mismatched pair of genetic characteristics. Either alone would have been useful, would have aided the survival of your species. But the two together are lethal…You are intelligent. You are hierarchical.” If humanity does indeed ‘contain’ innate companionships- life and death, intelligence and natural hierarchy, care and harm- then, of course, those companionships bring and bind people together. They are us. I think habit and continued learning have the ability to sustain our relationships, both with our own selves and with one another. We are independent lives, with distinct life cycles and different things to understand. But sowing idealized images of a perfected human whole reap stagnation over growing, just like how having idealized images of our perfect individual selves can too. Rather, I want to continue on in my life cycle of habit and learning, growing and metamorphosing in my understanding of life. “I chose a spot near the river. There I prepared the seed to go into the ground. I gave it a thick, nutritious coating, then brought it out of my body through my right sensory hand. I planted it deep in the rich soil of the riverbank. Seconds after I had expelled it, I felt it begin the tiny positioning movements of independent life” (Butler, p. 746). Throughout this course, I have learned about myself and others, paralleling the planting of the seed; and I can run with these understandings, just as the seed moves forth as independent life. 

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