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Why They Walk Away

Marina's picture

“Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness. They know that they, like the child, are not free. They know compassion.”  (4).

I met a young boy online once. He was kind, talented, and very broken. We did nothing more than talk through the phone, yet I understood the pain and the weariness he felt. I sympathized with his emotions and I adopted them as my own in order to grow closer to understanding all the components that made up his consciousness. 

He had an extremely rough upbringing and many issues due to health problems, bullying, and family disputes. As we talked, his life unfolded before me as a stretch of pitch black sorrow and uncertainty; the more I came to know about him, the more pitiable he seemed to me. Pity for the boy translated into appreciation for my own life and for the fortune I had long taken for granted. After reaching that point however, I began losing the will to speak with him. Eventually we stopped talking altogether, and I began to focus on fixing my own life.

In her short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” Ursula Le Guin describes the sacrifices that must be made to initiate the creation of a utopia. She depicts a child being sentenced to a life of isolation in order to maintain the ideal society, and she depicts the few who cannot accept their guilt and leave Omelas, their Garden of Eden. This short story provides a greater understanding of my actions and why meeting a boy online had such an impact on my life.

Le Guin’s choice of the title “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” puts a definite emphasis on the people who leave the perfect city. This leads to the question, why do they walk away from Omelas? Because they are the ones who “would like to do something for the child. But there is nothing they can do.” (4). Those who would rather “throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of the happiness of one” and “let guilt within the walls” of both the city of Omelas and of their hearts (4). In other words, the people who are consumed by their feelings of guilt and powerlessness.

Omelas is Le Guin’s version of paradise, and she realizes that there is no plausible way for humans to exist without some aspect of darkness. Le Guin repetitively includes breaks from her fantasy to address the reader directly with hypophora. She questions the conceivability of her story, and assumes with her answers that the reader is not able to give it credit until after she explains where the town’s darkness can be found. Her last break from the story is to point out that the people who decide to walk away from a perfect world are more “incredible” than the creation of such a perfect world to begin with. She reveals that her with all her conjectures, she has no conclusion as to why someone would relinquish a life of well-being, and leaves the reader to create their own hypotheses.

Comparing Omelas to the Garden of Eden can help in understanding the city’s effects on its inhabitants. Like Eden, Omelas is a heaven on earth with only one known rule. For Eden, eating a fruit from the tree of knowledge is absolutely prohibited, for Omelas, the forbidden fruit is resisting ignorance of the child’s suffering and giving in to guilt. After giving in to the temptation of the fruit, inhabitants of both utopias are enlightened and consumed by negative emotions such as shame and guilt which force them to walk “through the beautiful gates” and leave their paradise (4).

Looking back on my encounter with the boy, I can apply the intentions of “the ones who walk away from Omelas” to my own actions. Watching him suffer through life was unbearable to the point where I could not accept his pain, yet I was powerless, as were the people of Omelas, to do anything but pity him. Watching the sheer amount of misfortune that had befallen the boy, I knew the best course of action would be to value the comfortable life I had been given and provide happiness to the people I did have the power to help. Therefore, I cannot tell you exactly why I walked away from him. Maybe I felt guilty for having what he did not and not being able to fully appreciate it. But I walked away. I stopped talking to him. In some ways I find this to be the most vain option of all. I sacrificed the boy to assuage my own guilt at the powerlessness I felt when I heard his voice. Despite the weakness I displayed by abandoning him, it had a profound impact on my life. I allowed myself a more objective view of my own faults and the reasons I could not help the boy. Leaving behind my emotional attachments to the pitiable boy, or even to the darkness and hardship I knew existed in the world, I gained insight to where I could actually focus on appreciating what I have. I left the boy to his own darkness and found a new place where I could enjoy my life with a purity that was independent of obligation and burden.