Spirituality, Transformation, and Destruction: Octavia Butler’s Human Contradiction

Since moving from home, beginning college, and gaining independence, I have become an increasingly spiritual person. For me, this involved both extensive introspection and contemplation of ideas bigger than myself. I see it as an art of transformation and humility, focused on the universal foundation humans share, while striving to rid of materialism and ego. This fueled my many questions regarding the human condition: what was inherent to us, what is our purpose? However, Octavia Butler’s unfiltered examination of what it means to be human addressed repressed and innate flaws. One of the many things that makes Butler’s work so captivating is the “truths” that she speaks on human condition, but this truth is difficult to face. She implies that we are an extremely volatile species, doomed to annihilate itself. Thus, she addresses another key aspect of spirituality─ an acknowledgment of our inherent flaws. Despite speaking truth to my beliefs, “Parables in Iteration: A Closer Look at Octavia Butler” exposed me as part of the problem. They spoke on the importance of action over belief, and the active role we must take to rid ourselves of systems and assumptions that constrain us. My beliefs never became more than an idea, and Butler forced me to confront my subconscious avoidance towards transformation. Humans must use logic and good faith for the preservation of our species, we must face our darkest flaws, before Butler’s warning if destruction becomes an irreversible reality.

The primary constraint upon human transformation are the systems that divide us, systems that even nearly extinct humans insist on upholding. The Oankali claim this is because “a complex combination of genes that work together to make you intelligent as well as hierarchal will stand to handicap you whether you like it or not’” (Butler 39). Initially, I partially agreed with the claim, but also believed there to be much more wrong with humans than two basic characteristics. Predominantly, our seemingly instinctive need to create structures such as sexism, racism, and xenophobia; conflicts founded on immutable and trivial differences, usually used to justify or maintain oppressive power relations. Yet, I realized I had completely missed Butlers point: these systems are a direct result of the human contradiction. They are shaped by fear and superiority; the former is a threat to dominance and power, while the latter assumes it. There is then no wonder why Nikanj is confused by the racist and homophobic comments towards Joseph, “one has decided he’s something called a faggot and the other dislikes the shape of his eyes” (Butler 159). The remnants of these structures only exist in the minds of humans who remember them. Here, Butler makes a crucial point: the systems that dominate our lives are imaginary, invented by humans, and completely psychological.

Therefore, these strictures can be dismantled. Throughout the trilogy, the Humans’ transformation is hindered by their innate fear of the Oankali and their “alienness, [their] difference, [their] literal unearthliness” (Butler 13). Lilith is the first to begin changing perspective, finding it “surprising how quickly the Oankali had become people to her” (Butler 58). Yet, she follows this up with “but then, who else was there?” (58). Butler’s choice to include this afterthought reiterates an important detail: Lilith’s transformation was involuntary─ her captivity and isolation required her to adapt. So, her story proves transformation is possible, but also uncovers some eerie implications. First, change is easier when forced. This brought me back to one of our course epigraphs “…habit is more dependable than inspiration, continued learning is more dependable than talent”. In the same way, force produces more consistent results than being reliant upon individuals to accept personal responsibility for their own advancement. This connects to Butler’s second, and most significant, hypothesis; if humans fail to willingly accept the challenge, we may lose the privilege of choice. This is exactly what happened to the Humans in Octavia Butler’s trilogy, as Jdahya explains, “If they had been able to perceive and solve their problem, they might have been able to avoid destruction” (Butler 38).

Yet, there is a fundamental problem with this solution: real change requires collective action. Lilith’s adaptation does not ensure all of humanity will follow her example; Jdahya says “they” but “they” refers to the majority of humans. Therefore, millions of people could acknowledge the contradiction, break free from social structures, and ascend beyond a materialistic ego, but it would not avoid eventual annihilation. Humanity must actively participate in a mass “Awakening” if we are to save ourselves from ourselves. This means a universal concession to our flaws, and a joint plan of action towards mending them. Unfortunately for Lilith, her literal awakening on the ship forced her to confront these flaws by witnessing the near extinction of humanity. But, if we head Octavia Butler’s warning and eliminate power structures, we may be able to change before causing such devastation.

However, this creates a sort of paradox; Butler is calling for collective action to begin our advancement, but this goes directly against our hierarchal impulses. She seems to conclude that we need to change in order to change. I faced an initial confusion and frustration with this notion, but “Parables in Iteration: A Closer Look at Octavia Butler” expanded my definition of change to be much more abstract. A point that stuck with me was the “complicated yes”. They discuss the persistent waves of “truth” Butler confronts her readers with, and she asks: Are you ready to change? But the question is almost rhetorical; she is really asking if you will be complacent in exchange for avoiding the misery that is inherent to drastic transformations. So, the answer is yes but it is not an easy one. She does not sugarcoat the realities of change; it is strenuous, painful, and incessant. But the panel’s preface to this confusing and complicated journey established a crucial understanding: one must change their relationship with change. This epiphany allowed me to recognize my frustrations with Butler’s paradox a product of the assumption that change is linear. In reality, it is a messy, erratic battle with both wins and losses. Despite being with the Oankali for over a century, Lilith and Tino “still feel guilt, feel as though they’ve deserted their people for aliens, as though they still suspect that they are the betrayers the resisters accused them of being” (Butler 562).

On the other hand, Jodahs provides a theory of its own as to why the Humans struggle in their transformation, “No human could see the genetic conflict that made them such a volcanic species─ so certain to destroy themselves. Thus, perhaps no Human completely believed it” (Butler 562). Ergo, Humans are once again inhibited by themselves, unable to comprehend and accept the truth we are not capable of perceiving. His point is supported by the actions of those on the training room floor, the humans would only accept truths they could perceive and confirm. We have a reliance on our senses and “knowledge”, but how can one “see for myself” when they are literally incapable of it (Butler 211)? To some, this is a flat-out denial. However, this should instead be approached in good faith. We should change regardless of the legitimacy of the claims because rejecting it has far more detrimental consequences. The only “proof” of the contradiction humans can perceive is our own extinction, so it would be in good faith to change before anyone can be proven correct.

Despite my self-image being very introspective and spiritual, Octavia Butler has shown that I, along with all humans, are flawed. We will tear each other apart with the psychological torture of structures rooted in our own fear. Alongside this contradiction, humans’ deeply rooted fear of change prevents us from truly awakening to our flaws. Butler shows that complicated questions of life and purpose require more than one mind to solve. Now, my spiritual journey is consumed by efforts towards mass unity and the release of the precious and destructive human ego.