Octavia Estelle Butler. That is the gifted black science fiction author who’s books I recently read. Titled The Xenogenesis (Lilith’s Brood) trilogy, its setting is a war torn post-apocalyptic earth that has just been saved by an ever-curious alien race called Oankali. This rescue however was not done purely out of gratitude, but for a certain price. Part of the readers journey is deciding whether this price was worth humanities second chance. Over the trilogy, we go from the perspective of Lilith and then to her offspring in the later books as the earth is being rehabilitated. This series tackles many themes, however in an effort to keep todays post short, I want to focus on Octavia’s exploration of what is means to be human. There is a lot to learn through the interactions between both species as they are forced to share the earth, to the dismay and discomfort of the many human survivors I might add.
While saving and nurturing humanity back to health, the Oankali noticed two main characteristics of humans: formation of hierarchies and potential for intelligence. Many more observations were made as the Oankali made an effort to understand humans. The biggest question they sought to answer was why humanity entertained discord so destructive that it nearly ended their home planet. My overarching understanding of what they discovered can be summarized the following 4 points:
- Humans are contradictory beings between their actions, words and bodily desires
- Humans fear differences and things they do not understand
- Humans strive to prove independence and individualism despite being very much dependent
- Humans have the ability to adapt and accept sub optimal environments
These 4 points, including the hierarchy and intelligence noted above, are aptly described by the Oankali as “horror and beauty in a rare combination”.
While reading, the differences between humans and Oankali was a fascinating contrast that drew me further into the book. There is one radical difference that stuck out to me, and that is the heightened level of connection Oankali share. Human beings have the capacity to do good and can choose to partake in the shared celebration as someone thanks them or returns the kind act. The Oankali on the other hand cannot reject the emotions their actions impart on others. If they make someone feel appreciated, the same emotions course through their own body regardless if the action is reciprocated. The opposite it also true. Should they intimidate, bully or lie, they will also feel the same fear, inadequacy and confusion they inflict. These connections and interactions are so key to the Oankali that lack of them can negatively impact their health and bodily development.
I found this profound because we too as humans have to ability to feel how we make others feel and can suffer from poor or unhealthy communication. This aspect of the otherwise fictional novel, is a very real and tangible reality that could help humanity today avoid the fate of humanity in the novel. Only in our case we often suppress empathy or as a society point out the weakness in those who make an effort to empathize. It is very important to understand and improve how we relate to each other. Empathy is the capacity to understand and feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. It is the basis for any functional and resilient civil society.
So I ask you this, stepping out of fantasy, how can we become better at feeling others?