The Theology of Octavia Butler
The intersection of trauma, mindfulness, and shaping the changes in our lives.
I had reason this weekend to remember the time I got hit by a car as a pedestrian, that was going about 25 mph when it hit me. That was 9 years ago this Memorial Day weekend coming up. They were rushing on-coming traffic, making a left hand turn, and they saw the crowd of pedestrians behind me, and didn’t see me – they wanted to save themselves a few seconds. I got hit, and was thrown ten or fifteen feet, and luckily landed on my bottom and not my head. My doctor told me that I was really quite lucky. My body decided, on its own, to remain relaxed, as I was hit and thrown. If I had tensed up, she said, the injury would have been far worse.
The body is an interesting creature. With adrenaline going, I was able to leave that accident and walk a mile to a friend’s house. The next morning, I could barely hobble along to see my doctor three blocks away. It would take two weeks before I could safely navigate a sidewalk with a leg brace and crutches; and about 3 months before I could walk unaided. And that was just cartilage and ligament damage – amazingly no bones were broken. Broken bones hurt more, but heal faster, I’m told.
Trauma stays in the body; hidden away till something reminds it that it’s still there. For a couple of years, I couldn’t go in car. Even though I was a pedestrian in that accident, my mind associated cars with danger. I’ve unlearned most of the fears associated with it now, but I still will stop any friends with me from crossing a street against a light (not that I was jaywalking when I was hit, but I still have a visceral reaction at wide cross walks.)
On Friday, I had a near repeat of this story. By a difference of no more than six inches, I avoided an exact repeat of 9 years ago being hit by a car as a pedestrian – also in Brooklyn. The driver was rushing on-coming traffic and making a left hand turn into my path in the crosswalk. Trauma is a fickle beast, and muscle memory can flash back in a moment. Everything hurts again, even though I wasn’t hit this time. This time, probably because of my visceral response to all cross-walks, I was able to stop right before the car would have otherwise crashed into me. Don’t get me wrong, not being hit is far preferable. But within 15 minutes I began having a mixture of phantom echoes of the serious accident. Every muscle from leg to neck tensed up, and even today, it’s still painful just sitting, or just standing.
In honor of the Long Island clergy pact we all make when we move here, please consider this my annual reminder to drive safely out there; it’s better to be a few minutes late, than to risk what so many drivers risk.
I’m starting this sermon this way, because this month we are reflecting on what it would mean to be a people of Surrender, or of Letting Go. All too often, in the world of spirituality and consumerist self-help, we use these words blithely – like it’s an easy thing to achieve. Trauma is a serious thing, and again, sometimes quite fickle in what will bring it screaming again to the surface. In general, I go about my life not really thinking about that accident; and then there are moments where I’m reliving it. As we heard or saw in our reading from earlier from the writerOctavia Butler – ‘all that we touch changes, and what we change, changes you.’ Whether we find ourselves facing the on-coming rush of what’s next in life– able to roll with it, or able to avoid it – we are always changing it, and we are always changed by it.
Today’s service reflects on the theology of Octavia Butler. We heard several excerpts from her writing today. She was an African-American science-fiction writer. A multiple recipient of both the Hugo and Nebula awards, in 1995, she became the first science-fiction writer to receive a MacArthur Fellowship. Her near-future science fiction writing presciently explores worlds eerily like our own. The excerpts we heard today come from her 1993 series that began with the “Parable of the Sower.” Over 25 years ago she wrote a book that was set around the time we are in now or maybe set another 15 years in the future, but not much later than that. It was an America that was facing rampant forest fires due to climate change in the west coast, the increasing failure of agricultural production, the breakdown of suburban communities and the breakdown of basic rule of law. Instead of fake crisis with our southern border, we were enmeshed in a military conflict with our northern border. And a faux religious president campaigned on the political motto of Make America Great Again. I don’t recommend it for an enjoyable read, but it is gripping and thought provoking. And if we are going to discuss the virtues of letting go, or surrender, this month – I wanted to first begin with understanding what that might mean in the face of the reality of trauma. To move beyond the personal, xenophobia is trauma; climate change is trauma; the degradation of the basic rules of law is trauma, segregation is trauma, separate but equal is trauma. And none of that is science fiction; it’s the world we live in. And although the worst of climate change is a contemporary reality, the other traumas I just mentioned, have been threats since the dawn of civilization. Trauma finds its way into our muscles and bones, and even after being healed, can still find it’s way out again, and again.
Octavia Butler takes a hard look at the spiritual and the social impact of Change – the hardest spiritual truth. When communities slowly adjust to the times, we can get in the habit of critiquing anything different by labeling it “change” – as if that in itself makes it bad or wrong – even if the change is slow coming, well thought out, and well discussed. It’s the universal buzzword to end all debate – the worst 4 letter word – so to speak.
Octavia Butler’s writing is as much theology as it is sci-fi. Without ruining the plot, I want to share a little of her theology that I find translates universally to be true. Here are 4 short points, that I’ll share, and then I’ll talk a little more about them: 1) “All that you touch, you Change. All that you Change, Changes you. The only lasting truth, is Change. God is Change.” 2) “There is no end to what a living world will demand of you.” 3)“We’ll adapt. We’ll have to. God is Change. Strange how much it helps me to remember that.” 4) “Drowning people sometimes die fighting their rescuers”
The first quote: “All that you touch, you Change. All that you Change, Changes you. The only lasting truth, is Change. God is Change.” Some of us are most familiar with this teaching in the Buddhist context, where our attachment to things not changing only leads to suffering since all things change, and attachment to what can not be – is painful. The Serenity Prayer is a more modern version of this spiritual lesson: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” There are things we can change, things we can affect in our lives, and there are many things that we cannot. Pain and hope– to face each as they come is one of the hardest lessons.
But for Octavia Butler, she’s looking at this message a little differently. Change for her is sometimes like a rock banging against an object. All that you touch, you Change. All that you Change, Changes you.” The rock can break another rock, or a window, or maybe a door; but the rock will probably also break at least a little itself, as it comes up against what it changes. Change always happens in relationship – it’s never isolated. That’s probably part of the reason that is feels so difficult in community, because all the relationships are even more pronounced and obvious – it can feel like the change is compounding upon itself. That every little change can begin to point us toward the biggest of changes in life – are own end. We all feel that worry at some time in our lives. And trauma – any form of trauma – moves that fear to the forefront.
The next two theological quotes speak for themselves: “There is no end to what a living world will demand of you.” (Yet, we often act surprised that the demands of a living world, come again and again.) And “We’ll adapt. We’ll have to. God is change.” But Butler poignantly teaches us that, “Strange how much it helps me to remember that.” We can catch ourselves always focused on the worst, or on the end that changes bring, but there’s a deeper spirituality found in the practice of remembering that change is at the very foundation of our being. We can forget that we come into this world in an act of tremendous change (with the cry of our baby voice) – that all that is and will ever be – comes from change. Change is also our birthright, and there is a solace we can find in that when we open ourselves to that truth. (maybe tell the short Buddhist parable of the drop of water in the wave.) This is the virtue in surrender, in letting go. It’s not about giving up, but in recognizing that change is part of our nature – to let go of that which can not ever be, is to face our world and our situation as it is.
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