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The people of Omelas, the utopian city Ursula K. Le Guin describes in her short story THE ONES WHO WALK AWAY FROM OMELAS, live idyllic lives in a picturesque city. They walk around town in an utopian stupor, unaware of their own power to effect change. With intent they walk away from the one child whose existence embodies misery, hunger, sadness, want.
This child of ten---a significant age in its biblical implications---looks much younger for "it" lives in a small room, isolated from the utopia Omelas enjoy. It knows no beauty. It experiences no joy. Yet the child's presence, its suffering, anchors the city, perhaps functions as its cornerstone, a foundation on which all that's good in the city depends on this one child.
In Le Guin's visioning, the people know the child suffers. They've made a conscious decision to allow the child's suffering. Their comfort depends on the child's discomfort:
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 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.
On both a micro and macro level this story grows more relevant to me as I contemplate life's moments. I live comfortably. I do not want for food, clothing, transportation, medical care, housing. The "necessities" I take for granted come to me in ways I'd rather not think about too much: child labor in third-world countries provide my technology and clothing; migrant farm labor puts cheap food on my table. I have employee-provided health care and don't need insurance through the ACA.
The people of the town would like to do something for the child. But there is nothing they can do.
Too often we react to the suffering around us as though we, too, live in Omelas. What can we do? We feel sadness when we hear about national tragedies, such as racial profiling and natural disasters, but like those in Le Guin's story, we feel anger, outrage, impotence...
This past weekend I, along with the rest of the nation, watched as the social movement Colin Kaepernick started in 2016 exploded into a full-blown protest, one sparked by President Trump's offensive rhetoric. I see Kaepernick as a symbol in the way Le Guin's child is a symbol. As long as Kaepernick and his NFL colleagues stay in their lane, to use contemporary parlance, they merit the admiration of the fans. Those who denigrate the kneelers expect Kaepernick and those who have joined him to sit in the detritus of racism just as the Omelas leave the child in excrement.
The fans may "brood" or "mourn" or cry for a moment over Charlottesville or Ferguson or any number of white on black abuses, but little changes, especially with the current administration in power.
Their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it. Yet it is their tears and anger, the trying of their generosity and the acceptance of their helplessness, which are perhaps the true source of the splendor of their lives.
At the end of Le Guin's story we're offered a glimmer of hope. Some walk away from Omelas. They walk away from the town. That's one reading. I think there's another. What if Omelas isn't simply a town? What if Omelas is the child? Does it matter? Isn't the point that some walk away? And in walking away from this vision of a utopian existence they walk into darkness.
Where will we walk when we take the next step in our national journey?