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.

Sydney Bosworth on the Interdependence of Change, Learning, and Violence

When I first heard the phrase “Learn and Run!”, my immediate train of thought led me to images of guidance counselor posters featuring books and smiling children. In Octavia Butler’s Dawn, however, I was impacted by the expression’s gravity and significance. It represented Lilith’s plan of escape, her survival mechanism, and her means to adapt. In a world where humans are stripped of their choices and autonomy, knowledge and thought are the only the forces they have a semblance of authority over. It will also be the only tools available in their survival. Yet, violence becomes an essential tool in education, for both humans and the Oankali. The association of these two concepts has greater implications towards the interdependency between change, learning, and harm. Lilith’s motto “Learn and Run!” not only reflects her understanding that adaptation and change require learning, but also the chaotic nature of obtaining and applying knowledge. Butler’s extraterrestrial dystopia epitomizes these concepts to contemplate the consequences of knowledge and its role in our division and bonding.

The Oankali’s genetic compulsion to breed with other species without an obligation to consent both implicates the Oankali as an inherently violent species and reveals the complexities in obtaining knowledge. Jdahya explains, “We acquire new life─ seek it, investigate it, manipulate it, sort it, use it. We carry the drive to do this in…a tiny organelle within every cell of our bodies” (Butler 41). Yet, this “investigation” and “manipulation” is not done at the species consent, as demonstrated through Lilith’s experience, “I think I wish your people had left me on Earth…if this is what they found me for, I wish they’d left me” (Butler 43). So, is it possible for the Oankali to evolve without the use of harm? They ignore consent in order to gain the knowledge required for them to interbreed, change, and prevent the extinction of the human race. This does include removing Lilith’s cancer, enhancing her strength, and granting a perfect memory, but the lack of explicit consent is inevitably a form of harm. However, Lilith notes, “humans had done these things to captive breeders─ all for a higher good, of course” (Butler 60). Here, she seems to notice the moral ambiguities that may exist within learning by recognizing the similarities between Human and Oankali practices.

The ethics of learning are still relevant in our modern, non-apocalyptic society, such as the removal of ancient artifacts. In October 2020, archaeologists opened a mummy’s coffin from ancient Egypt for the first time in 2,500 years in attempt to learn more about the mysterious civilization. However, just as the Oankali did not have consent to study humans and tear down their ruins, the Egyptians did not consent to having their artifacts removed and tampered with. Many found the opening of the coffin disrespectful towards Egyptian culture, but many also claim it was necessary for learning. Butler thus exemplifies the many moral grey areas existing within in the pursuit of knowledge; To what extent does a “greater good” justify the use of harm? Is it possible to obtain knowledge without causing harm? Does the use of harm increase or negate the value of the knowledge learned? Butler does not attempt to offer or imply a correct choice; she instead layers the complexities into a massive grey area in which the reader must define their own morality.

Thus, “Learn and Run!” emerges with several meaningful nuances outside of a simple getaway plan. It also illustrates the inequalities that exist between the Oankali and humans, and mimics the many emotions the humans experience. Lilith, along with the rest of humanity, faces two options once captured by the Oankali: Adapt or Die. Jdahya offers this choice to Lilith directly by offering to sting her, but she cannot go through with it (Butler 43). Therefore, learning and change becomes integral to the human’s growth and survival. They must acclimate so the Oankali will return them to Earth, “that meant they must control themselves, learn all she could teach them, all the Oankali could teach them, then use what they had learned to escape and keep themselves alive” (Butler 117). However, harm and violence become the primary tool in forcing this change. The Oankali are choosing to evolve, but humans are being exploited. Thus, “Learn and Run!” echo’s the desires and despairs of the imprisoned humans. The phrase is rather laconic, but when used as an exclamation, it expresses urgency and uncertainty. Ergo, it is imitating the human’s in their fear towards adapting and desperation for autonomy.

As previously mentioned, the Oankali question the moral dilemmas in learning and research. The Humans, on the other hand, demonstrate the consequences of flawed knowledge and its role in division and bonding. Throughout “Nursery” Lilith struggles to bind the humans into a functioning community, primarily due to people’s refusal to learn. Denial is an expected reaction from anyone first Awakening, however, turmoil arises from those who continuously dismiss the truth. Lilith seems to recognize the extent to which denial can influence other’s opinions and perceptions when she says, “they’ll believe me for a little while. Then some of them will decide I’m lying to them or I’ve been lied to” (Butler 167). As contradicting “truths” are spread, a dichotomy forms between those who follow Lilith and those who agree with Peter’s skepticism. Yet, Lilith is the only source of first-hand experiences and knowledge pertaining to the Oankali. In the search to learn and change, those who discredit her information are limited to their own speculations. For example, Lilith’s enhanced strength aroused gossip after her fight with Jean, claiming she is a man or not human. Such distortions, provoked by fear and confusion, repeatedly splinter the group and spark cynicism, especially towards Lilith. This goes to show the power and influence of false information is just as pervasive as any other piece of intel.

As misinformation and suspicion increases, its ability to incite violence becomes increasingly evident. Lilith explains, “all he has to do to hurt us is refuse to believe we’re on a ship. After that, everything he does will be wrong and potentially deadly” (Butler 134). Again, following Lilith’s scandal, Joseph warns her “you’re probably not in any danger now, but you will be soon” (Butler 147-148). Rumors, though spurious, increase skepticism. Derrick, for example, suffered the consequences of Peter’s inaccuracies after sneaking inside a cabinet in attempt to find people on the other side. Instead, he was retrieved and put back to sleep by the Oankali (Butler 171). As he was getting in, Lilith notes, “[Peter] had been told that the cabinets refilled automatically. Just one more thing he had decided not to believe” (Butler 172), indicating Peter and his misinformation to be at fault. Lilith’s experience not only demonstrates the many ways ignorance can manifest, but also its extensive and dangerous consequences.

The most direct interpretation of “Learn and Run!” advocates for the power of knowledge, and Octavia Butler would likely agree with the juvenile proverb, but in her own wry manner. As per her style, she dissects this concept to question and investigate its limitations, consequences, and implications. Many carry the subconscious assumption that learning and knowledge are inherently positive, however, Butler attempts to demonstrate the ways in which it can be abused or cause harm. She doesn’t work against learning or knowledge, but rather offers insight to the many intricacies that convolute its morals.