The Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler, presents a seemingly unlikely heroine. Not only is Lauren Olamina a young, black woman, but she also has a disorder called hyper-empathy. Hyper-empathetic people feel other people’s pain. They feel the pain as if it is their own. This pain is so real that it can cripple a “sharer”, just as it could cripple the actual person in pain. In the world of Parable, there is an unbelievable amount of pain, both physical and emotional. Therefore, sharing is a great burden to those with hyper-empathy. With this troubling disorder, it would be completely understandable if Lauren was a weak person, greatly depressed, and without hope. Yet quite the opposite was true. Lauren’s hyper-empathy did not hold her down, rather it drove her onward in her hopes of building a peaceful community. It prepared her for the hardships she will face on her journey. It strengthens her desires and will. In order to survive, to lead the exodus out of Southern California, hyper-empathy was needed.
In the world presented by Butler everyone feels great pain. The life of each person is a struggle. They know great poverty; they see suffering and death on a daily basis. The pain this causes them creates in them a desire, a hope for a better life. “The adults say things will get better, but they never have” (Pg. 13). They believe things will get better, but they don’t do anything to ensure that it does. They sit and wait, idle. But Lauren’s pain is stronger. She feels not only her own pain, but the suffering of everyone in the tiny, walled community. Her pain, her suffering is the hardest to bear. She is, therefore, more willing to do something to ensure her survival and a better life. She tried to convince the others that something had to be done, but her ideas were rejected. She prepared herself to leave, putting together a pack of necessities. She practiced the scenario of leaving in the middle of the night. When the time came, she was able to escape. Her driving force, the desire to shed this great pain, had saved her life. Her friends and family did not have such fate.
Throughout her life, Lauren was forced to deal with pain. She felt every little knee scrape of the kids playing in the street. Every tear shed by a community member was her own. Not only did she have to cope with the pain, she had to hide it. If her acquaintances had known of her sharing, she would have been even more vulnerable. So she took the pain in stride. This hardened her, strengthened her. It created in her an amazing strength, both physical and emotional, that would be vital in surviving in the outside world. “[She could] take a lot of pain without falling apart. [She’d] had to learn to do that” (pg.9). She had experienced and felt even death. When she killed the dog, while taking shooting practice “[she] felt it die.” (Pg 39) She had dealt with it so well; nobody had noticed her extreme pain. This took a great deal of strength. If anyone could survive in a harsh outside world, it would be her.
In Lauren’s world it was not uncommon to see people suffering, starving, even dying or dead. The people of this nightmarish world had learned to ignore these people. Sympathy for others was almost non-existent. Yet, these people only saw the pain the others. Lauren felt their pain, and therefore couldn’t help but be sympathetic. She wanted badly to help them. While riding bikes to the baptism, they group traveling with Lauren saw a naked woman, obviously hungry, and more than likely with little time to live. Lauren wanted to help her; she said, “I wish we could have given her something” (Pg 9). The group did not help the woman. The thought would not have even entered their minds. To help people like this would lessen the community’s chance of survival. It was everyone for themselves. Lauren knew this, but if it were up to her, she would have helped. When the time came that is was her decision, her compassion would come through, she would aid the less fortunate.
Once in the outside world Lauren’s desire to help others plays a vital role in her own survival. While the unwritten law of the land was – every man or woman for his or herself, Lauren time and time again reached out. The people she reached out to often had nothing. They had no food, and no money. Her companions were usually reluctant to help others, even though they had been “the others” not long ago. Somehow, she convinced her partners to accept helping less fortunate people. The group grew to a dozen strong. The individuals or pairs, by themselves, were weak, but together they were strong enough to discourage thieves to harassing them. While it wasn’t for this security that Lauren had helped these people, it was this security that helped her, and the others, survive.
Pain was a key factor in Lauren’s survival. It made her strong and compassionate. It made her want badly to find a better place. Yet another factor was the exact opposite. Pleasure also was a driving force. “[She’s] supposed to share pleasure and pain, but there isn’t much pleasure around these days. About the only pleasure [she’s] found that [she] enjoy[s] sharing is sex” (Pg 11). Was sex the only pleasure left to these people? Was sex the only time that the people of this sad world don’t suffer? It seems that this is the case. Lauren could very well share other pleasures, if they existed. In a peaceful, happy world, Lauren could very well be the happiest person alive, feeling not only her own happiness, but also that of others. Lauren’s will to succeed in her quest was stronger than anyone else’s. She had the most to lose in the harsh reality world, and the most to gain in the world of her dreams. Her great will held the group together. She kept them moving forward. She kept them from falling apart.
In the end, a disorder that could have, possible even should have, held Lauren down, lifted her up. She led a group of people through trials and tribulations. Her strength and her compassion, given to her by hyper-empathy were the leading factors in their survival. Lauren wanted more than to survive. She wanted more than to be safe and happy. She wanted others too to be safe and happy. She wanted to help people. She wanted to help humanity. No matter how well she did, no matter how much she succeeded, she could not be happy while others suffered. Her happiness would always be tainted, unless she was surrounded with others who had the same bliss. What Lauren had seen as a hindrance, in the end, was a blessing in disguise. Without hyper-empathy, Parable of the Sower could not have been a survivor story.