How Many Must Suffer for Us?


New York Times Columnist David Brooks:

Maybe you’re familiar with Ursula Le Guin’s short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” It’s about a sweet and peaceful city with lovely parks and delightful music.

The people in the city are genuinely happy. They enjoy their handsome buildings and a “magnificent” farmers’ market.

Le Guin describes a festival day with delicious beer and horse races: “An old woman, small, fat, and laughing, is passing out flowers from a basket, and tall young men wear her flowers in their shining hair. A child of nine or ten sits at the edge of the crowd, alone, playing on a wooden flute.”

It is an idyllic, magical place.

But then Le Guin describes one more feature of Omelas. In the basement of one of the buildings, there is a small broom-closet-sized room with a locked door and no windows. A small child is locked inside the room. It looks about 6, but, actually, the child is nearly 10. “It is feebleminded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition and neglect.”

Occasionally, the door opens and people look in. The child used to cry out, “Please let me out. I will be good!” But the people never answered and now the child just whimpers. It is terribly thin, lives on a half-bowl of cornmeal a day and must sit in its own excrement.

“They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas,” Le Guin writes. “Some of them have come to see it; others are content merely to know it is there. They all know it has to be 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 … depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.”

That is the social contract in Omelas. One child suffers horribly so that the rest can be happy. If the child were let free or comforted, Omelas would be destroyed. Most people feel horrible for the child, and some parents hold their kids tighter, and then they return to their happiness.

But some go to see the child in the room and then keep walking. They don’t want to be part of that social contract. “They leave Omelas; they walk ahead into the darkness and they do not come back.”

How many in the world suffer and have endured deprivation and humiliation for the riches enjoyed by a relatively few of the planets inhabitants?

How many hundreds of worthy cultures have died because of the greed and addiction of one dominant culture? (See Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael.)

How is it that the majority of American school children (K-12) live below the poverty level with many or even most doomed to lifetimes in the shadows of the American Dream?

How do we keep others in the basements of our organizations and institutions as each day we live out dysfunctional cultures?

Have my values, empathy and compassion become shriveled and desensitized and become the basement of my soul?

We are each innocent and guilty.

Few, if any, can simply walk away from the world view and culture we were born into and that envelops us and reaches far beyond our ability to control. Life today is too complex, unconscious and intertwined for us to escape.

We can, however, strive to be as mindful as possible of the harm we do to others by living the way we do. We can do what we can to illuminate the basements of our way of life. We may not be able to escape the systems of our lives but we can take small steps every day to see those systems clearly and move to the edges of them.

We can at least begin to learn how to live.