By Eric Reeves
May 28, 2006
Let me ask that you imagine a place, outside of history or geography, where people of all ages enjoy a magnificent happiness--a rich, sustained, at times ecstatic happiness. I don't have time to give you all the details, but Ursula LeGuin has described this place in her haunting story, "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas." What we learn in this story is that the extraordinary happiness of those in Omelas is just as extraordinarily contingent: it depends entirely upon the suffering of a single child, who is confined to a basement, denied adequate food, medical attention for her festering sores, and denied, most consequentially, all human companionship.
The people of Omelas know of the child's suffering; indeed, the terms of their happiness are such that they must know of this suffering, even as they can do nothing about it. Were the child to be rescued, this happiness would end immediately, for everyone. It's not easy to accept, but they do, because their joyous and collective happiness depends upon the child's suffering. So, too, do the various impressive cultural achievements that are integral to happiness in Omelas.
These are the terms, and everyone both knows them--and knows as well that any attempt to change them will bring an end to the community's happiness. When adolescent children first learn of these fiercely strict terms, there is regret, even rage; yet they come to accept the arrangement.
But quite remarkably, sometimes a young woman or man doesn't accept these conditions--sometimes they leave Omelas, each alone. They leave Omelas, Le Guin writes, "walking 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." My wish for you is that you never cease to wonder how it is that these young people know where they are going.
Honorary Degree Citation