Friday, January 9, 2009

New Year's Resolutions: Walking away from Omelas

By Sara Smith Andress
This past semester, I taught “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” a short story by science fiction writer Ursula K. LeGuin, and it sparked a lively class discussion, prompting me to revisit it. Like all good fantasy writing, LeGuin’s story forces us to confront the hard questions instead of allowing us to escape them.

The scenario is this: A wonderful shining city exists, a utopia called Omelas. We are given a description, but its exact characteristics remain indeterminate because Omelas is whatever the reader wants it to be. It is not a monarchy, and seems neither capitalist nor fascist; we are told “there was no king . . . As they did without monarchy and slavery, so they also got on without the stock exchange, the advertisement, the secret police, and the bomb.” Omelas has religion, but no clergy or temples. It may have drugs, if one chooses, but no addiction. There is no war, but simply a “boundless and generous contentment” in place of a sense of victory. The narrator, knowing we are by nature skeptical of perfection, asks, “Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.”

The one more thing is the thing that sustains the happiness of the inhabitants of Omelas: a small child languishes in a squalid closet, isolated and malnourished, crying out mournfully and filthy with its own excrement. We are told that the greatness of Omelas rests on the suffering of this helpless individual: “their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child's abominable misery.”

Upon coming of age, everyone learns of the child; many young people go to view the child in its dungeon. Some are deeply disturbed; the image of the child haunts them into their older years, but most eventually find a way to rationalize this uncomfortable reality in their minds. Some, however, are compelled to leave Omelas forever. The narrator tells us that this is the most amazing thing of all: “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.”

This story has been interpreted in numerous ways: as a rant against capitalism or utilitarianism, an allegory of Christian redemption, an ode to Vietnam draft dodgers fleeing to Canada. Another debate has been whether the ones who walk away are heroes of passive resistance or cowards for not staying and fighting to free the child.

I have considered all of these approaches and more, but when I think of this story, I keep returning to one overwhelming and general question: who is suffering as a result of my desire to live as I wish?

Unlike the citizens of Omelas, we are not often forced to acknowledge that the American way of life in many ways depends on the suffering of others for its continuance. For example, when I drive to Wal-Mart, my vehicle consumes oil--a nonrenewable resource over which wars are fought and people--some of them innocent non-combatants--die. Not only do my purchases from Wal-Mart contribute to the annihilation of small local businesses, but many of their goods are manufactured in China, in squalid factories where workers are subjected to long tedious hours in unsafe working conditions. The merchandise and food sold at Wal-Mart is often shipped across the country, if not across the globe, consuming more precious resources and contributing to the collapse of ecosystems and therefore to the collapse of human communities that depend on those systems (and, most likely, contributing to global warming as well, but we’ll not get into that here). In fact, employees just trying to do their jobs are sometimes trampled during Black Friday sales--how’s that for sacrifice? So much of the cost of our lifestyle is paid not at the cash register, but in the form of what economists call “externalities.” In order to obtain cheap consumer goods, we give up things like clean water, clean air, topsoil, a sense of community, and even human lives.

This all may sound very sanctimonious. I am not advocating communism, nor asceticism of the sort displayed by Jainist monks, who sweep the ground in front of their feet so as not to crush bugs and eat only fruit that has already fallen from the tree (and yes, I do visit Wal-Mart--rarely, but on occasion). Indeed, because we live in a world that is fallen, all life inherently includes suffering. Even a well tended garden bears testimony to the fact that death and decay bring forth life and abundance. And, intentionally or not, because it depicts the suffering of an innocent, LeGuin’s story points to the ultimate truth of the Cross, which may lead many readers to conclude that the child represents Christ and Omelas is Heaven, therefore rendering the child’s sacrifice necessary and desirable and making fools of those who walk away. However, Omelas looks more like Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights than Heaven. Christ suffered and died so that we could acknowledge, repent, and be forgiven of our sin and be with Him in paradise, not to give us permission to continue cavorting in an earthly paradise of our own making. To look at the child’s suffering as a necessary sacrifice for the good of the many ignores the focus on those who walk away and implies an ethic similar to that expressed by Mao Zedong when he said, “To make an omelet you must break a few eggs,” in defense of the slaughter of millions. The same totalizing rhetoric has been found in mass emails circulating the Web for the past six years or so, urging people to “support the troops” (i.e., the war) because sacrifice is necessary so that we may remain “safe” and “free.” And, while they may imply it, rarely do these emails mention the sacrifice not only of the soldiers and their families but also of those who just got in the way--those who remain invisible and numberless.

We might compare this line of thinking to the rationale of the abortion-as-birth-control movement. Like the tiny victims of abortions, the victims of our military-industrial complex are often unseen strangers to us. We often do not recognize them as human, and even if we do, we maintain that our right to live as we wish is more important than their right to live at all. And, like the victims of abortion, anything that gets in the way of our quest for self-actualization is dismissed as collateral damage. As Dick Cheney stated soon after 9/11, “the American way of life is non-negotiable.”

I think the sentiment of those who reject this mindset is most poignantly expressed by--you guessed it--Wendell Berry. In his essay “The Failure of War,” he answers the question that modern warfare implies:

How many deaths of other people’s children by bombing or starvation are we
willing to accept in order that we may be free, affluent, and (supposedly) at
peace? To that question I answer: None. Please, no children. Don’t kill any children for my benefit.
“But,” one might object at this point, “the war is no longer popular. We will have a new President in a few days. There are other things to worry about, like the economy.”

The Bush reign is indeed at its end. But how much of Obama’s administration will be devoted to delivering life support to an empire in its death throes--an empire (regardless of who its President is) whose economy is fundamentally based on violence, whether in Iraq or elsewhere, through war or other means? How much of Obama’s rhetoric has already focused on assuring Americans that yes, they will basically be able to continue living as they had, despite some setbacks and small sacrifices? How many of our tax dollars will continue to prop up corrupt and destructive (and now failing) industries?

Our American Omelas is looking less and less utopian. Now, even our “freedom” to buy things we can’t afford is diminishing. Free? Affluent? At peace? These luxuries seem more illusory by the minute. Our non-negotiable way of life is crashing down around us as we speak. Omelas is crumbling, and many will continue to suffer amid its destruction.

So, the second question the story prompts us to ask is, once we have seen the child, will we stay or go? Will we accept the suffering of another being or will we refuse to comply in a system that requires this sacrifice? If we choose to be one of the ones who walk away, how, exactly, does one walk away?

More and more, when I consider the character of mainstream American culture, I find myself thinking, “I want no part of this.” Moreover, I do not want my child to be part of it, either. Some days it seems as though just existing means being complicit in the system. I would like to think that walking away can be accomplished step by step, that gradually, we could, as Wendell Berry says (in "The Mad Farmer, Flying the Flag of Rough Branch, Secedes from the Union") “secede”

From the union of power and money
. . .
From the union of ambition and ignorance
. . .
From the union of anywhere and everywhere
By the purchase of everything from everybody at the lowest price
And the sale of anything to anybody at the highest price;
From the union of work and debt, work and despair;
. . .

Secede into care for one another
And for the good gifts of Heaven and Earth


So, in the spirit of a new year, I ask myself, what will I do to walk farther
away? What will you do?

More posts on this later.


Mrs. Pivec said...

Um... wow. :) I am so happy and humbled that you decided to follow my blog and made it possible for me to read this wonderful, provoking piece you have written.

These are challenging questions that I have asked myself and struggle with myself on a day-to-day basis. I have to tread lightly, so as not to become a)overwhelmed with the persistence of the difficult realities of life and b) a wet-blanket to family and friends, when I want to point out some of these very things.

The key for me has been to make small, consistent lifestyle changes that continue to address these issues in as many ways as possible in my life. That said, I see flaws in many of the choices I still make... I always see flaws. But we are flawed humans and it will be thus. That is not to say that one should give up trying, as Paul talked about. Instead, it spurs us on to continue to do better, but also to continue without condemnation, because that is not of God.

I also see the small child represented in animals raised for food. They are more silent sufferers for our comfort and tastebuds. Moving from a vegeterian diet of 20 years to a vegan one has made the most sense to me and continues to help me live according to my values.

Thank you for this post! I'll also be looking around more here - it's very nice to meet you!

Sara said...

Thank you so much for your thoughtful and encouraging response! It is indeed so challenging to speak one’s mind and yet avoid being “a wet blanket” when so much of the culture gives so little thought to the effects of the choices they make. People ask me things like, “why don’t you just get a dryer instead of drying your clothes on the line?” or, “Why don’t you just use paper plates?” I try to look at these as opportunities to highlight (without sounding like a snob, ha) the fact that seemingly small choices reflect my overall philosophy, which is ultimately rooted (or should be, anyway) in the Bible. Waste is a form of stealing because we are taking/destroying something that does not belong to us, but to God.

You make an excellent point about the non-human victims of this culture. I am reminded of the books Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, both of which reveal the fundamentally cruel and toxic system of industrial food production. I highly respect you for living out your values through your choice to be vegan. While our family is not vegetarian/ vegan, we have cut back drastically on our meat consumption; one of my goals in “walking away” is to become more self-sufficient and eliminate industrially-produced meats and other animal products from my diet.