The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas
by Ursula Le Guin
Of course, and like most things that I have written about here, they have been topics that are not just spurred and touched by my coworkers and colleagues, but from Reddit as well. A few days ago, someone asked about short stories, and the story above ^^, was one of the top voted ones. A satirical look at what the world has to give up and sacrifice for the greater good, for the happiness of others, and more importantly for the concept of “ignorance is bliss”. So many things happen in this world that we often remain oblivious from, either by choice for plausible deniability or just the lack of interest. A characteristic that can only be detrimental and inhibitive of our growth and maturation of the human race. At first look through the comments about this short story, I realized this was something I just had to write about, and how it can pertain to healthcare and technology. Often times things are missed, things are ignored, or things are swept under the table to keep people, the organization, the business, and the industry happy. It’s happened far too many times and with media control, it’s very certainly possible as well. And so let me introduce to you the story that spurred it all: The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.
With the way the character is told with an omniscient narrator watching down upon the village, it allows a sense of ambiguity and mystery, almost as if it’s a mythical and unbelievable society… it certainly sounds like it through their description of “happiness, joy, and peace”. Overlooking upon the village, we soar across and see the happiness pervade the land. A land of peace, prosperity, and plentiful bounties where the people were “mature, intelligent, and passionate … whose lives were not wretched.” It gives the reader the chance and availability to imagine and picture their own perfect city. A city only conceived by the reader, but the following few pages will then tear it down all the same, indicating that regardless of how all of us can few a beautiful thing, the underlying misery that supports the happiness as a foundation is not always bearable.
We meet the villagers who are not burdened, simple, or unequal. The air filled with happiness, joy, and laughter. As we continue, it allows us to think about our own world and the possibilities and the necessary opportunity costs in order to have such a thing. Le Guin says that there is no happiness, because “happiness is based on a just discrimination of what is necessary, what is neither necessary nor destructive, and what is destructive”.
Pain and Suffering Still Exist Though.
But as the narrator continues to overlook upon the village a lonely character speaks out to the audience and asks if they want to accept the festival, city, and joy. Most people would agree simply, but the narrator decides to inform the people on the secret. That for all of the happiness in the city, there is a lone child who takes in all of the misplaced suffering. Living in a basement filled with decrepit furniture and sleeping upon his own waste, malnourished and sickly looking, he/she/it is not educated, is not mature, and is feeble minded and fearful of everything around him. Afraid of everything, the child is tortured, maybe not physically but emotionally and mentally. Broken down again and again. Often seen by a person or multiple persons and beaten and torn into pieces. However it is only one person who does the beating, while the others glare with judgmental eyes, frightened and disgusted at the abomination living in their city. The people of Omelas know of this child, and know of the suffering that it endure, but they all know that it has to be there in order for the happiness, beauty, tenderness, health, wisdom, skill, abundance of harvest, and kindly weathers all depend on “this child’s abominable misery”.
They understand. They know. They watch on. They ignore. However the people of Omelas are not robots, they feel for the child and are disgusted at the conditions that the child must live in. “They feel anger, outrage, impotence, despite all the explanations”.
All goodness and grace of every life in Omelas for that single, small improvement: to throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of the happiness of one: that would be to let guilt within the walls indeed.
But as the citizens grow, they come to ignore it. Perhaps the happiness and splendor is not caused by the miserable child, but because of their ability to perpetuate their happiness and splendor, do they cause the child to be miserable. But because they know of the pain, they allow their empathy and compassion to spill out upon everybody else, perhaps this is why they have such a beautiful and caring community. However, sometimes there are people who visit the child and never return home. They leave the basement and walk away. They continue walking away, away from the city of Omelas. They’re walking away, into the unknown, away from a city of happiness and prosperity.
In fact it shows, that things are not always what it seems:
In order to be truly happy, stand up for what’s right, even if it means leaving what you know.
To me, it’s the importance of people leaving and departing from something settled, filled with happiness, contentment, and prosperity, because it is built on injustice even though they trade it for an uncertain future. With their guilt of turning away for some many years, they are unable to go along with the mass ignorance anymore. Even in our own society today, the misery of others is often used to justify the happiness of the greaters. Perhaps this can be viewed allegorically, in that the poor are often used in the processes of the rich and privileged or in macrocosmic senses, between the disparities in quality of life in First and Third World countries. Perhaps ignorance is not the proper word, but negligence? It is not that they are unaware, but they are aware but choose to not act against the acts of misery and pain inflicted upon this child… why? Are they so hellbent on maintaining their peace and happiness? Can they so easily justify the torture and suffering of even one for the sake of many? Personally, I would be torn but in the end I believe I would also become resigned, perhaps if the next child was my own, I would run away with him, but the hypocrisy of the human life is just that. Self-preservation. There is a different between being selfish and being self-serving, one takes what they believe are entitled to and one protects what they have in order to keep what they have without losing it.
In fact, famous author Fyodor Dostoyevsky also had a mention of this theme in his novel, The Brothers Karamzov:
“‘Tell me yourself, I challenge your answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature–that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance–and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?
Tell me, and tell the truth.’
‘No, I wouldn’t consent,’ said Alyosha softly.”
-Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov