Study Guide

Parable of the Sower Compassion and Forgiveness

By Octavia E. Butler

Compassion and Forgiveness

I can't do a thing about my hyperempathy, no matter what Dad thinks or wants or wishes. I feel what I see others feeling or what I believe they feel. Hyperempathy is what the doctors call an "organic delusional syndrome." Big s***. It hurts, that's all I know. Thanks to Paracetco, the small pill, the Einstein powder, the particular drug my mother chose to abuse before my birth killed her, I'm crazy. I get a lot of grief that doesn't belong to me, and that isn't real. But it hurts. (2.27)

In science fiction, being empathic is often seen as a super-power...or, as Butler is describing hyperempathy syndrome, as a disability which leads to delusion. To what extent does compassion require us to actually feel what another person is feeling?

Besides, just because I can shoot a bird or a squirrel doesn't mean I could shoot a person—a thief like the ones who robbed Mrs. Sims. I don't know whether I could do that. And if I did it, I don't know what would happen to me. Would I die? (4.34)

Often, we think of violence as being a strength, wherein those who are capable of great violence are stronger than those who are not. But it also seems that acts of violence carry a toll for the people who engage in that action. To what extent is violence a burden for the person who has committed it? For Lauren, that burden is ever present. But to what extent is Butler making a more universal claim about the human condition?

I walked, then rode in a daze, still not quite free of the dog I had killed. I had felt it die, and yet I had not died. I had felt its pain as though it were a human being. I had felt its life flare and go out, and I was still alive. (4.115)

This is Lauren after she kills the dog. Lauren seems to have thought that because the dog was also capable of feeling pain, its death might kill her. But she stayed alive. So how much can dogs feel pain? To what extent should we be concerned with the emotions of non-human animals? Often, discussions of non-human animal rights center around whether non-human animals can reason or not. But is rationality the only sign of personhood?

"You better marry Curtis and make babies," he said. "Out there, outside, you wouldn't last a day. That hyperempathy s*** of yours would bring you down even if nobody touched you."

"You think that," I said. (10.97-98)

This is Keith, Lauren's brother, advising her to stay in Robledo, and her response. Many times, people advise those with an unusual, troublesome condition—such as Lauren with her hyperempathy—to just play life safely, to not rock the boat or do anything risky, since the condition is already hard enough as it is. That's how Keith sees Lauren's syndrome, but she doesn't see it that way at all. She believes it's just another fact that she has to take into account. She won't let anything stop her.

[Keith] messed up our family, broke it into something less than a family. Still, I would never have wished him dead. I would never wish anyone dead in that horrible way. I think he was killed by monsters much worse than himself. It's beyond me how one human being could do that to another. If hyperempathy syndrome were a more common complaint, people couldn't do such things. They could kill if they had to, and bear the pain of it or be destroyed by it. But if everyone could feel everyone else's pain, who would torture? Who would cause anyone unnecessary pain? I've never thought of my problem as something that might do some good before, but the way things are, I think it would help. I wish I could give it to people. Failing that, I wish I could find other people who have it, and live among them. A biological conscience is better than no conscience at all. (10.136)

How do you cultivate compassion? Is Lauren right that a society of people who could feel each other's pain as their own would be a more moral society? Would a society of caring and compassionate people have any drawbacks to it? You can read Parable of the Talents to find out a bit more of what Octavia Butler thinks.

The day [Zahra] and Harry use their knives, I hope they kill. If they don't, I might have to, to escape the pain. And what will they think of that?

They deserve to know that I'm a sharer. For their own safety, they should know. But I've never told anyone. Sharing is a weakness, a shameful secret. A person who knows what I am can hurt me, betray me, disable me with little effort. (15.108-109)

Lauren seems to think that her hyperempathy syndrome makes her more compassionate toward her enemy than those without it would be. Yet in this passage, she thinks the syndrome (her curse) would make it harder for her to merely wound and not kill in a fight situation. She's never quite sure in what ways her condition is an advantage and in what ways it's a disadvantage.

I can't tell. Not yet. I'll have to tell soon, I know, but not yet. We're together, the three of us, but we're not a unit yet. Harry and I don't know Zahra very well, nor she us. And none of us know what will happen when we're challenged. A racist challenge might force us apart. I want to trust these people. I like them, and . . . they're all I have left. But I need more time to decide. It's no small thing to commit yourself to other people. (15.108-110)

Opening up to others about our inner worlds can be scary, but it can also lead to greater connection. Lauren is struggling with the desire to protect herself emotionally from being abandoned or hurt by her traveling partners if she is to reveal her hyperempathy syndrome—while at the same time balancing the realities of life on the road. How does this relate to your own experience of struggling with whether to open up to another person?

[Harry] was still raw about what had happened the night before. He had killed a man. That bothered him. I had killed a man in a much more cold-blooded way, according to him, and it didn't bother me. But my "cold-bloodedness" bothered him. He wasn't a sharer. He didn't understand that to me pain was the evil. Death was an end to pain. No Bible verses were going to change that as far as I was concerned. He didn't understand sharing. Why should he? Most people knew little or nothing about it. (17.22)

We often judge the rightness or wrongness of an action based on our own perceptions of the situation and our own value systems. In this passage, Lauren seems to be implying that although she shares Harry's upbringing in Christianity, her hyperempathy syndrome means she can no longer accept the values with which she was raised. How does Lauren's hyperempathy condition change how she views compassion compared to Harry?

It felt natural and easy to lie down with him, and explore the smooth, hard, broad feel of his body. He'd kept himself fit. No doubt walking hundreds of miles in the past few weeks had burned off whatever fat he'd been carrying. He was still big—barrel-chested and tall. Best of all, he took a lot of uncomplicated pleasure in my body, and I got to share it with him. It isn't often that I can enjoy the good side of my hyperempathy. I let the sensation take over, intense and wild. I might be more in danger of having a heart attack than he is. How had I done without this for so long? (21.77)

Fearing the hurt of being vulnerable, we often avoid opening up to others. Yet being open to the pain of others also makes it possible to be open to the pleasure and joy of others. To what extent does Lauren's hyperempathy syndrome force her into achieving greater connection with those around her so that she is open to both pain and joy?

I looked at [Emery's] bruised, swollen face. Bankole had given her something for her pain. I was grateful for that, and half-angry at him for refusing to give me anything. He didn't understand my numbness and grogginess back at the copse, and it disturbed him. Well at least that had faded away. Let him die three or four times and see how he feels. No, I'm glad he'll never know how it feels. It makes no sense at all. I keep catching myself wondering how it is that I'm still alive. (24.110)

It's clear that Lauren experiences her hyperempathy syndrome as a major challenge. This is one of the moments when she thinks it'd be a good idea for others to have to experience it, too. She never quite makes up her mind on that point, however. She's definitely surprised that she's survived as long as she has—and we at Shmoop are surprised she made it so far too. But, she's tough. Go Lauren.

This is a premium product

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

Please Wait...