September 4, 2023

‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas'

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There’s a short story by Ursula K. Le Guin called ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.’

Written in 1973 and winning both the Hugo and Locus Award for best short story, it went on to become the inspiration for many films, games, essays and series. From N.K. Jemisin’s anthology; ‘The ones who stay and fight’, to Star Trek, via the supernatural beings in ‘Outsider’, and the Dishonoured video game series, Le Guin’s story has continued to influence, inspire and create debate. We’re going to give you a summary but if you’d like to read the whole thing you can do so here.

The first half of the tale describes Omelas and its inhabitants. It is as close to Utopia as you can get. It’s a happy place with happy people where children can run around naked and fearless, love trumps all and whilst not especially religious, it is a very spiritual place. The narrator encourages you to tweak it to your liking, to make it a utopia you personally would want to live in. Everyone in this city feels “a boundless and generous contentment” all the time. The narrator beguiles you.

Then they tell you the price.

In a basement somewhere in the city is a child. Malnourished, neglected, terrified. They refer to the child as ‘It.’ The misery of this child’s existence is described in vivid detail. And everyone in Omelas knows about the child. There’s a coming-of-age ritual where kids are taken down to see ‘It,’ and they are told that the perfection of their lives in Omelas depends on this one child’s utter misery. They argue and cry, they want to help but “the terms are strict and absolute.” Helping this child will ruin everyone else’s life.

At the end of the story, we discover that most people come to terms with the child’s existence. That they understand it is a price that must be paid. And some even venture that the child couldn’t be helped now anyway, it’s too late, too damaged. But once in a while, a citizen does not accept this awful predicament. And they leave Omelas, alone, in total silence. They don’t know what awaits them outside the city, but they go with a sense of purpose, they seem “to know where they are going.”

It’s one of those stories you read, and never forget. Whether you think about it as just a particularly good story, or an allegory that explores the social contract, or a meditation on happiness always existing in relation to suffering. It stays with you, and you begin to see examples of it everywhere.

We shop at Primark, we walk past people in need, we buy products containing palm oil...the list goes on and on, and by ‘we,’ I don't mean ‘you,’ I mean ‘us,’ as a society.

And it’s not that we don’t care, we care a lot. There’s just so much to care about. So we must choose something, or a few things, but we can’t wilfully look every need in the face and act. We’d go mad.

That’s why charities have to work so hard to break through, to be seen in the dense crowd of vital causes, trying their best – because they have chosen not to look away, not to accept. Each and every charity is a ‘one’ who walks away from Omelas, uncertain of the future, but unwilling to settle for the present as it is.

If Utopia were possible, charities wouldn’t exist. If charities didn’t exist, the hope for Utopia would be futile. So, how do you tell your charity’s story? How do you make someone stop and see you, hear you, understand what needs to be done? And then be willing to do it when they have been conditioned to accept the cruel vicissitudes of life?

This powerful TV advert by Save the Children does a great job of confronting the viewer, urging them to not ignore the atrocities of the world, but instead see children facing war, poverty or exploitation as individuals, not just ‘a story on the news to turn off and forget about’. It inspires the viewer to fight for these children, and so fight for a better future.

Catsnake is a storytelling agency for the third sector. Does your story need telling? Or telling again, but louder?