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To Truly Walk The Walk Means To

aquato's picture

Generally speaking, there aren’t many easily spotted similarities between my chance encounter with a college freshman and a short story about a utopia thriving on the misery of a child. In fact, when trying to relate the two, my experience actually addresses certain holes of the story. Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” showcases a contact zone between a tormented kid and those who flourish on it. My zone, instead, was comprised of high school and college students. Neither my overnight host, nor I, though, had much of a power differential to make it a “true” contact zone. Nonetheless, there was always only one person taking charge of the situation, and one following.

The biggest difference between my experience and Le Guin’s society rests on the idea of agency. Although not suffering quite as much, I in my experience most often correlate to the unnamed, miserable child in the basement. I, like the child, was placed in a situation out of my control and was left to be miserable, in a way. The similarities stop short there, however, because unlike the child, I had the power to leave my “closet” and actively search for people who could help me on my own terms; Le Guin’s child has no such willpower. This disparity arises from that fact that the child knows nothing of its situation. Even though it tries to ask for help, it does nothing to further its circumstances by itself.

As a heuristic device, Le Guin uses her writing to orchestrate many what if scenarios. Readers are lead to believe that her society is a closed one, that there is a possibility that anything beyond “does not exist.” It rarely discusses individuals in Omelas, the closest being a boy who plays a flute and those who choose to walk away. Everybody else is part of the mindset that refuses to help the child and lives their lives in easy, ignorant bliss. And while specific attention is given to the few who walk away, no insight or what if scenario is given to anybody who walks in. In my experience, there were upperclassmen and other prospective students that came up to and connected with me.  My bleak circumstance was brightened, if only by these few people. “Omelas” fails to feature this countering personality.

Furthermore, neither the text nor our class’s discussion brought up the possibility of letting people suffer in equal amounts. The story declares that there are some residents in Omelas who want to help, who “would like to do something for the child. But there is nothing they can do.” The wording here is dubious. Is it really true that there is nothing they can do? Or should the correct phrasing be that these privileged, idealistic folks won’t help? The basis of Omelas is of give and take: where people find joy, others must invariably find misery. These people simply aren’t willing to risk their own joy and happiness for one who has suffered beyond comprehension. Its inhabitants, while saying that they would help, fail to think of the option that there could be a sort distribution of suffering.

…That sounds a bit weird, but hear me out. When I stayed overnight, for instance, there were times when it was fun for my host but not me. She got to show my fellow overnighter and I around town with one of her friends, and they seemed to have a good time, whereas I felt very awkward and uncomfortable. Later in the evening, though, the dynamic had switched—I was having a good time with other people while my host was bothered and tired in the corner. In the end, she texted me a vaguely passive aggressive “Well, tell me when you want to leave.” In the end, both of us had moments of happiness and other moments of “misery”. By Omelas’ own lore, if one person needs to suffer, must it be the same one, for all time? Can’t the suffering be evenly divided amongst the thousands of residents in this utopia?

My encounter exemplifies drive and initiative in both parties, where Le Guin’s portrays static compliance with the norm. Even those who walk away fail to change the horrific circumstance, and none try to alleviate the child’s oppression. In some real life scenarios, like my experience, different people belonging to either party—whether happy or miserable—may or may not have the agency to help themselves or others. This really only serves to further complex the situation as written by Le Guin. When people start to address it is when we’ll see what it means to walk to a solution, rather than walking away.