The Children In Our Basement

Omelas

I was punched in the gut today by a 4 page short story written in 1973. It’s plotless, lacks a main character, and takes only about ten minutes to read. At 8 AM, my older sister texted, “Please please read this short story so we can talk about it. It’s probably the most important story I’ve ever read.” I guess you can’t ignore a text like that, so I sat down at my desk and read it.

I deeply encourage anyone reading this to please take the ten minutes or so to read this story, here as a PDF, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. I’m aware that in this day and age, we are a skimming culture, so I will do my best to accurately summarize the 4 pages.

Omelas seems to be a utopian city. It’s residents are mature, passionate, and happy. They have what they need, but are not over indulgent. They do not know of guilt. The author imagines a festival of celebration, full of energetic, happy children riding upon exuberant horses that celebrate as humans do, and chuckling plump ladies. Omelas is full of beautiful architecure, art, and a magnificent farmer’s market. Most people reading this would have a hard time believing the perfection of Omelas. After describing the festival, the happy people, the beauty, the author asks,

Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.

Somewhere in the basement of a building in Omelas, there’s a small broom-closet sized room, foul-smelling and wretched, windowless. A child, feeble and malnourished, sits in the room. The child is naked, weak, and covered in sores from his/her life of confinement and from years of sitting in his/her own excrement. Sometimes, the door opens and people come to look at the child. The people hastily fill the food and water bowls, and then leave. No words are shared, despite the child making whimpering noises and pleas. No one stops to care for the child. There is no social interaction. This is, and will be, the child’s life.

Hauntingly, the child is no secret to the people of Omelas. Some come to see the child, while some go on just knowing he/she is there. Between the ages of 8–12, each resident is taught about the child in the basement.

They all know that 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, 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.

There is nothing the residents can do. To remove or care for the child would mean the crumbling of Omelas; not even a kind word is to be spoken. For whatever reason, the child in the basement is what allows the utopian existence of Omelas. As the story says:

To exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas for that single, small improvement: to throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of the happiness of one: that would be to let guilt within the walls indeed.

The outrage and sadness experienced by each resident that learns of the child in the basement might linger for weeks, maybe even years, but eventually they must come to terms with it. They go on living. Some, however, decide to walk. Without word, sometimes an individual begins walking. They walk from the city, past the village streets, toward the fields and mountains. They are The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.

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.

I nearly cried when I read this story. I’m not sure why. Of course, it is a story of exploitation, of ‘the greater good’, of reluctant acceptance of suffering, but what can we do with this story? Although it was not specifically intended, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas reminds me of the 9 billion land animals a year that suffer for human existence. They are the silent, invisible victims of our society, just like the child in the basement.

People tend to believe that non-human animals are the necessary byproducts of a progress-driven society. As a society we believe that it’s necessary to eat them for our health, that it’s necessary to wear them for clothing, to experiment on them for medicine. We tend to believe that if this exploitation ceased, our foundation would crumble. We’ve built our foundation upon the suffering of others, and as the story says (speaking of Omelas’s lack of soldiers, but an important foreshadowing of principle), “the joy built upon successful slaughter is not the right kind of joy.” Our economy, and the lives of millions that work in animal agriculture depend on these invisible victims. In looking at footage from factory farms, it’s evident that the conditions of life for these animals are no better than those of the child in the basement. They are confined, abandoned, cared for just enough to sustain life. They are the children in our basement.

As I drew these comparisons, I found myself searching for answers. Who are the people that walk away from Omelas? What is the indescribable place they walk toward? Is the life outside of Omelas more beautiful, or more dark? And if we are to compare this to our society, what is what and who is who?

Those that walk are those that can no longer accept the suffering of the child in the basement. It is described in the story that some who walk are young, like one of the people who just witnessed the suffering of the child. Others are old men or women, who fall silent for a day or two, and then walk from Omelas unannounced after years of reluctant acceptance. Are they directly saving the child in the basement? No, but they are refusing to live a life based upon it’s suffering. Using the comparison of non-human animals as the child in the basement, I suppose as vegans, we are those that walked.

I remember first deciding to become vegan after spending most of my life as a vegetarian. For reassurance that I was strong in my commitment, I forced myself to watch some horrific slaughter footage, the kind that prompted me originally to go vegetarian. I remember the horror, the anger, the shock as I did this, the same feelings described by those that witness the child in the basement in Omelas. I had a choice. I could either reluctantly accept that my love for dairy, which seemed to bring me happiness, would result in the suffering of beings, or I could refuse to participate in the suffering. As a new vegan, you are walking into the unknown. You are, in a large way, alienating yourself from the rest. You give up some convenience, some comfort, the normalcy you once loved. You walk from the protective gates of Omelas.

So where do we go? Is it a physical place, or is it a metaphorical place? As I contemplate a physical place, I dream up my own version of utopia. A place where all beings, human or not, live in some state of harmony. Or at least, some state of nonviolence. But the physical idea of where you go outside of Omelas seems like a cop out. You can’t leave one fantasy land for another.

My sister Athena Copenhaver, helped shed some light on what life beyond Omelas looked like. In walking away from Omelas, we refuse to let suffering be hidden in the basement. As those who walk, whether we find a better version somewhere else or not, we see the inherent suffering and cruelty in the world wherever we go. The residents of Omelas could remain blissful because they confined the suffering to a small room, but in not accepting that, to those that walk, the suffering of the world is no longer hidden.

As an ethical vegan, I feel torn between two realities. On one hand, I see the possibilites and the necessary optimism for a future without invisible victims. As a writer and activist, I want to work toward that better world so that it’s a reality. I want it to be feasible and positive (a physical place outside of Omelas). On the other hand, since becoming a vegan, I am acutely aware of so much suffering. In almost every facet of society, a non-human animal is deprived of life as humanity sits atop it. When I see a fashion magazine, I think of a mink farm. When I go to dinner with friends, I see factory farm footage. When I see milk at the grocery store, I see every being that suffered or died for that product. When I see makeup, I see bunnies and beagles that were mutilated for cosmetic testing. The victims are everywhere. Omelas, and the confined basement, is somewhere far away. I have made the invisible victims visible everywhere. This is the metaphorical state of leaving Omelas.

The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas is a philosophical text that needs to be pondered over and revisited many times, I’m sure. I know that this blog post does not necessarily come to any conclusion, nor does it shed massive amounts of light on something that many people have already shed light upon. It does not offer answers. But I was touched by the story, and felt it was something I needed to jot down. Omelas leaves me with many questions in regards to veganism, like how do we communicate with the justifications of suffering? Is there such a place outside of a society that requires invisible victims? Do we have to shove suffering into a basement to get on with our lives? Is Omelas worth cherishing if it is founded upon the blatant cruelty of a child?

Story originally published on Medium.

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