In Octavia Butler’s “The Parable of the Sower,” the protagonist Lauren Olamina has what is called “hyperempathy syndrome.” In this dystopian future society, many people have this condition caused by their mothers being addicted to a certain drug when they were in utero. The symptoms are that Lauren can literally, physically feel what other people in close proximity to her are feeling. When they bleed, she bleeds. When they are in pain, she feels pain. When they feel pleasure, she feels it too. She tries to hide this condition from people because it is seen as a weakness. In her world, people with hyperempathy are easier to oppress and enslave, because it is almost unbearable for them to fight their attackers/oppressors.
But Lauren trains hard. She learns how to shoot guns. When she encounters a dying dog, she shoots it so that it dies more quickly, feeling every bit of its pain. She practices how to fight and even kill while feeling everything. And in this violent landscape, people are actually trying to hurt and kill her, and she must learn how to protect herself and her allies, even to the point of killing (which she does a few times) all while feeling all of the pain of her attackers.
What does this mean for us?
I am so intrigued by this hyperempathy syndrome and Lauren’s approach to it. I think Octavia Butler brilliantly shows us ourselves and what we must do to survive and thrive in these violent times. Lauren is the prophet of a new society. She begins a new religion and starts to build a new, cooperative way of life with her allies, completely outside of the oppressive structures of society. And she needs her hyperempathy in order to see this new way. But she also needs to train hard to remain in action while feeling all of the feelings. She is a badass empathy warrior.
I have experienced moments that feel like hyperempathy. Moments when I have been overwhelmed by the pain in our world. When I have felt the incredible grief, rage, horror and distress of people in my community, and I have been paralyzed by it. The intensity of those feelings is overwhelming. It can be hard to know what to do when the immensity of those emotions sinks in.
What I am starting to practice now is how to remain in decisive action through those feelings. Not by cutting them off or refusing to feel them, but by feeling them very deeply and letting them guide action. Occasionally but rarely, people really are trying to hurt me, and it is important to protect myself, even while empathizing with their position. More often, people are overwhelmed by their own feelings and are only trying to protect themselves, and the hurt to me is just collateral damage. In this case, I need to feel both their hurt and my own, and find decisive action that both does not hurt them, and protects me. When I am working with aligned allies (most of the time), our common actions forward common interests. We feel each other’s feelings and decide on collective action that moves us all towards thriving.
While empathy is a very important quality to cultivate, and our culture at large does not have enough of it, there is a danger to hyperempathy without action training. Those of us who practice empathy on the regular can become paralyzed if we do not train. Let’s commit to cultivating empathy, while practicing decisive action. Let’s be empathy warriors