Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Thoughts on Walking Away (not astro-related)

A recent post at Vanilla Rose's blog reminded me about a short story by fantasy/science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin: Those Who Walk Away From Omelas.

It's one of those clever allegorical tales, superficially simple but with layers of depth and open to a variety of interpretations depending upon a reader's experience and insight.

If a passing reader is unfamiliar with the full version, do please go read it at the link below. It's not very long but will stay with you for a long time - I promise!

Full text of the short story is at

A nutshell version:

In the city of Omelas, everything is beautiful and wonderful - everyone is happy, except for one small child, locked in a cellar. The child can never be shown the smallest shred of love or compassion. These are the terms on which the people of Omelas are happy, and they are non-negotiable. In order for their state of grace to continue, the child must continue to suffer. In return, once in their lifetimes, the people of Omelas must go down into the cellar and see the child who is suffering so that the observers can continue to live their happy lifestyles. Most of them enjoy the lives they lead all the more as a result of it, because they understand the sacrifice that has been made so that they can do so. Occasionally, however, someone comes out of that cellar leaves Omelas forever.

We can relate the message of the story to numerous real-life issues. There's no solution offered by its author, no judgment either. All is left to the reader.

There's a Christian angle to the story - if one relates to that angle. The child can be seen as a Christ figure, making it possible for the city to live joyfully because of the child's sacrifice.

My first reading of the story led me to relate the situation to the spoiled inhabitants of the developed western world relying on the sweat-shops and near slave situations in third world countries where so much the west has come to rely upon is produced.

That's using a wide-angle lens.

Pulling in, nearer to home, there are all kinds of injustices which echo the Omelas story - Vanilla Rose picked up one of them in her post.

Or there's the ever-present problem of poverty - in one's own country and in the world generally. There's no need for poverty - the Earth has always had sufficient resources for all its inhabitants to live comfortably - yet it hasn't worked out that way. A tiny - very very tiny - group of its inhabitants control the resouces, and wealth flowing from them. This leaves just sufficient resource for many of us to get by in relative comfort, but hardly anything for another large group who struggle to survive against growing odds: the metaphorical child in the cellar.

Solutions though?

Were those who walked away doing the right thing?

Were there no people who stayed behind and fought to develop "a better way"?

The message I took from the story: in every instance of any injustice what we should be doing is not walking away, but staying to fight. Too many of us are used to either complacently accepting injustices, especially when they seem to be to our own advantage, or walking away from them, to ease our consciences, but without even attempting to work towards changing things for the better.

Any other messages from this story?


Gian Paul said...

Another angle: Domestic animals!

At times one has the impression that dogs, horses, even cats (though less so) look upon us as if we were "god".

They often quietly suffer, being alone, maybe hurting, or just not sufficiently occupied.

Sure we can ignore that (or walk away), but not if we want to be "loved by them". So it's normal to "go down to see them", isn't it?

Sabina said...

Well, walking away from implies walking towards and in this story I think it is the idea of another reality where no one need pay for the happiness of all to exist. The only Christian angle I thought of was something Jesus is reputed to have said about the least of these.
Personally, while I am prepared to acknowledge the facts of, and limits of, life on this planet - including death, disease and natural disasters - I too do not believe there can be happiness and fulfillment for all while even one is excluded. It is a numerical and spiritual impossibility.

Wisewebwoman said...

The cost of our "happiness" on this side of the globe is huge. I often think of the source of even every day items, what sweatshops and child labour might have been involved.
Most people are deluded or refuse to dwell on such details. The devil you know philosophy.
Yet we will all hunt the bargain and gloat over it without a care to its real cost.
Shame on us.

Twilight said...

Gian Paul, Sabina & WWW ~~~

Many thanks for your additional thoughts on this.

Vanilla Rose said...

Thank you.

I must confess that I hadn't actually thought about people staying in Omelas. Perhaps in Omelas, there are experts who defend the status quo with great sincerity, but who are wrong. Perhaps the child could be released.

I'm still "walking away from omelettes" and other animal products, but yes, there are examples in life where staying and doing something would seem to be a good idea. Thank you for pointing that out.

Twilight said...

Vanilla Rose ~~~ And thank you for reminding me of this story !