Warning – this post contains some potentially distressing content.
Imagine this. Millions of people are kept happy on the simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far edge of things should live a life of lonely torment. The idea first appears in Dostoyevsky’s Brother’s Karamazov and was written about by Ursula Le Guin in The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.
How to describe the citizens of Omelas?
They were not simple folk, you see, though they were happy. They were not less complex than us. They were mature, intelligent, passionate adults.
Luxury shopping, healthcare, impressive buildings, transport, festivals, delicious food and fine music – all part of everyday life for the happy residents of Omelas.
Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.
In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window. A little light seeps in dustily between cracks in the boards, second-hand from a cobwebbed window somewhere across the cellar. In one corner of the little room a couple of mops, with stiff, clotted, foul-smelling heads, stand near a rusty bucket. The room is about three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet or disused tool room. In the room is a child. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes.
They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it; others are content merely to know it is there. Some of them understand why, and some do not; but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skills of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.
They would like to do something for the child. But there is nothing they can do. If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms. To exchange all the goodness and grace of life in Omelas for that single, small improvement: to throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of happiness of one.
I wonder, who is it that the child represents in our lives? The dying sea creature ingesting our plastic, the exhausted construction worker building the next luxury development, the person of different abilities who inconveniences our ways of working. It could be the abused woman, the man silently battling his suicidal thoughts, or the LGBTQIA person suffering at the expense of the office banter. The cost of our happiness is often unintended, making it even harder to speak up against the status quo and lead the change.
Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness. They know that they, like the child, are not free. They know compassion. It is because of the child they are so gentle with their children.
At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. Each one goes alone, youth or girl, man or woman. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist.
But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.