The ones who stay in Omelas

Ursula Le Guin's short story "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" contains a terrible moral conundrum. Many people have agonised over it: to my knowledge, no-one has solved it. Attempts that I have seen all in some way change the framing of the story, whether by justifying blood sacrifice, insisting that there must be a better way, or creating a better alternative. But if you change the framing, you have not solved the problem. You have avoided it.

As I read through Le Guin's story to the end, I recognised the moral conundrum. It is similar to the one I posed in this piece. In Le Guin's story, as in mine, the facts don't matter. It is what people believe that matters.

In Le Guin's story, millions of people believe their happiness and that of everyone they love - indeed, their very existence - depends on a child being condemned to live in darkness, pain and squalor. They accept that the child's suffering is necessary, so they do nothing about it. Indeed, they contribute to it, for fear that, through a moment's inattentive kindness, they might inadvertently bring about the destruction they fear.

I might say, "But the happiness of millions cannot depend totally upon the silent suffering of a single individual shut away from society. This is a myth. Why do you, intelligent people, believe this myth?"

But they will not answer. They believe, and that is all there is to be said.

I might say, "Our happiness and our pain stem from our relationships with each other. If we feel only happiness, and shut away our pain, our relationships are incomplete: we are only half human".

Indeed, the moral dilemma in Le Guin's piece is about whether to silence our consciences and numb our compassion for this child in the name of the "greater good", and in so doing, make ourselves less than human; and if we cannot do this to ourselves, then what?

In Le Guin's piece, as in mine, the majority chooses to allow the individual to suffer. Her piece is more problematic than mine: in mine, we know Jesus is blameless, but the crowd believes he is guilty and therefore demands his death. But in hers, the crowd knows the child is blameless, and yet demands that it suffers. In mine, too, Jesus is an adult who has voluntarily chosen the path that will lead to the cross. But Le Guin's child did not choose. It was too young to make such a choice. It was chosen, and condemned.

It does not matter whether the myth people have been told - that if the child is rescued, or even treated with momentary kindness, the city will be destroyed - is true. It matters only that the majority believes it is true. Or even, that the majority believes the majority believes it is true.

While the majority believes the myth, or believes that it believes the myth, the child cannot be rescued, just as the fact that the crowd believed Jesus should die made it impossible for Pilate to rescue him.

So "the ones who walk away from Omelas" make the same choice as Pilate. Just as Pilate wanted to rescue Jesus, they want to rescue the child. But because the majority believes the child must suffer, they cannot rescue the child. They must either accept the horror or leave the game. Pilate washed his hands and let Jesus die. The ones who walk away leave the child to suffer. They have not solved the conundrum, they have avoided it.

Where do they go? We do not know. In their own way, they too are scapegoats, sharing the suffering and isolation of the child; Le Guin is at pains to emphasise that they leave alone. They seem to know where they are going, yes, but perhaps that is just "anywhere but Omelas". They are single-minded in their determination to leave that terrible place, but once beyond the bounds of the city, they disappear from our sight. Maybe, like Schubert's Wanderer, they wander joylessly through the strange land beyond the city, forever seeking happiness but condemned never to find it: "where you are not, there is happiness."

After reading Le Guin's story, I asked myself what I would do. You will probably think me callous, but I quickly realised that there was no way I could rescue the child. I might personally believe the myth is nonsense, but I can't fight the wrong beliefs of millions.

But I believe - I BELIEVE - with all my being, that condemning others to pain and misery to ensure our own safety and wellbeing is wrong, and that happiness bought with the suffering of others is grotesque. I cannot blind myself to what I see, nor numb myself to what I feel.

So once I had seen the child - once I had been forced against my will to become one of its torturers - I could no longer bear to live in the terrible city that imprisons it. Not because of its suffering, but because of mine. 

And so, perhaps, I would walk away from Omelas.

But I am uneasy. I cannot end the child's suffering by walking away. And I cannot end mine, either. In my mind's eye there will always be the image of that tortured child in its dungeon. So whether I stay or I go, I will forever be entangled in a web of pain and guilt. What benefit would there be in relinquishing the hedonistic pleasures of Omelas for the wilderness beyond its gates? I might find deprivation and isolation more soothing to my guilt-filled conscience than a summer party, but it will not relieve the child's suffering. And when there are no parties to distract me, I would have to face the fact that I, coward that I am, walked away. Death might be preferable to living with such guilt. 

Perhaps the ones who walk away are not seeking a brighter future, nor even resigning themselves to eternal joyless wandering. Many authors portray death as a beautiful gateway, and the path to death is always travelled alone. Perhaps the ones who walk away choose to die rather than live vicariously through the suffering of an innocent. They walk purposefully towards annihilation. That's courageous, for sure, but what does it achieve? It does not change the child's situation. Suicide is merely another way of avoiding the problem. 

Besides, to walk away is to reject the child's gift of happiness. To be sure, the child does not choose to give this gift: but nevertheless, it gives it, at great personal cost. Would it not be a worse insult even than unkindness and maltreatment to walk away from the one good thing that stems from the child's incarceration? Perhaps graciously accepting this gift, horrible though it is, is the best that can be done. The tortured child in its filthy dungeon commands us to be happy, because that is all that gives meaning to its suffering. How could I refuse?

The child's unspoken demand that everyone except itself be happy binds everyone who stays in Omelas. Their happiness is not fake, it is a necessary response to the child's suffering. They must either be happy or end the child's suffering, and ending the child's suffering will bring destruction.

The child is a kind of god, a peculiar object of worship. Just as other religions require sacrifices to placate the angry, destructive gods, so the religion of Omelas requires everyone to placate the suffering child - the destructive child - by being ostentatiously happy. Everyone makes a pilgrimage to see the child at least once in their lives; seeing it in all its pain and squalor is a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. And once the initial grief and rage at the child's suffering is past, all negative emotions must be packed away. There is no room for sorrow or anger in Omelas, nor for fear or pain. Only the child has permission to feel these emotions, and these are the only emotions it is allowed to feel. It must never know happiness; but for everyone else, happiness is compulsory. Omelas takes psychological splitting to a new dimension. 

Nonetheless, since everyone has seen the child at least once, they know it is real. They know the extent of its suffering, and they know they can do nothing to relieve it. Though they sublimate their horror at  this awful truth by making beautiful things, throwing big parties and being kind to their children, still the brutal contrast between their prosperous lives and the child's misery remains ever-present in their minds.This is not happiness, it is mental torture.

It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that Le Guin advances as justification for Omelans' refusal to relieve the child's torment that they perceive it as "less than human", a disgusting thing, filthy, fearful even of inanimate objects, unable to speak coherently. There is no point in caring about it; the child has been incarcerated so long that releasing it would bring it little benefit. And anyway, why would you destroy the happiness - even the lives - of millions of real humans to rescue a tortured subhuman?*

But I return to the question I asked earlier. Le Guin insists that these are intelligent people: and yet they believe a myth. Why, intelligent people, do you believe this myth? Why doesn't anyone, ever, test whether it is true? It would be easy enough to do. Yet not one of you dares even speak one kind word to a tormented child. It is as if you are under a spell.

Or perhaps a curse. Curses typically involve some kind of taboo: doing this thing will instantly bring destruction. "The curse is come upon me!" cries the Lady of Shalott as she breaks the taboo that forces her to see the world only in a mirror. Dying, she leaves her tower, finds a boat and lets the river carry her to Camelot. The sight of her dead body floating through Camelot brings the Round Table's summer party to an abrupt end.

Le Guin frames her conundrum as a curse of the Lady of Shalott variety. If anyone does the forbidden thing, retribution will be instant and total. The summer party will come to an abrupt - and permanent - end. Privately, perhaps, many Omelans doubt that the curse is real; but even those who doubt won't dare do the forbidden thing, because if they are wrong, the consequences will be terrible. 

It is of the nature of curses that they bind not only the intended victim, but all participants. In Sleeping Beauty, when the princess does the forbidden thing, thus bringing the curse upon herself, everyone in the palace falls asleep for 100 years. In Beauty and the Beast, the curse that creates the Beast also transforms his servants into household objects. And for Omelas, the curse that says the child must suffer forces everyone else to ignore its suffering at the cost of their own humanity. Not only the child, but all the ones who stay in Omelas, are emotionally stunted.

The truth is, there is no escape from Omelas. Everyone - the suffering child, the ones who stay, and the ones who walk away - is bound by the curse. The ones who walk away reject the religion of Omelas, the rites and rituals that substitute for compassion. But they still believe the myth. And so they dare not do the forbidden thing. They dare not show compassion to the child. So although they walk away, in their minds they are still in Omelas. 

And I - perhaps I too would stay in Omelas. For although the compassion I feel for that poor child drives me to want to hold it, soothe it, comfort it, I must also feel compassion for the millions who might suffer and die if I did that. I don't know if I possess the moral courage to say to the people of Omelas, "Your myth is nonsense and your behaviour is monstrous," and reach out to the child, daring the curse to unleash its destruction. Coward that I am, I fear that that like everyone else, one way or another, I would walk away and leave the child to its suffering. 

I am ashamed.

Related reading:

The Lady of Shalott - Alfred Lord Tennyson

And for those who didn't get what this epistle is really about:

* I am very aware that this "othering" is all too often used in our own society to justify outright cruelty towards marginalised people. I'm sure it was not lost on Le Guin, either.  


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