The price, and necessity, of hope

Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow-lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead 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.

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas

[Last week I was lucky enough to spend three days at the Aspen Ideas Festival, talking with and learning from entrepreneurs, engineers, scientists, designers, activists, journalists, policy makers and of course other educators. While the discussions covered a wide range of fields and subjects, a handful of themes seemed to cut across most of them, all of which seemed relevant to our work at the Workshop. In this series of posts I’m trying to do some thinking out loud about those themes and their implications for our work.]

In one of our seminars, a group of us was asked to read The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas, Ursula Le Guin’s short story about Utopia and its perils. (Spoiler alert: for those who want to read the story—it’s only six pages—before I talk about how it ends, you can google the title and get to a full text version.)

The story opens with a description of Omelas, a place that prizes freedom and tolerance and celebration of life, Le Guin’s Utopia. In cases where the reader’s Utopia differs from her own, the author makes clear that insertions or substitutions can be made. But two thirds of the way into the story, we learn about the catch. The price of Utopia is the unending, terrible suffering of a single child. Everyone in Omelas knows the child is there, and that this condition is not negotiable. Most learn of the child when they are entering adolescence. Most choose to remain in Omelas, accepting the compromise. But a few don’t, and so they walk away into something unknown, but likely far less Utopian.

The story is deeply unsettling, haunting even. One innocent suffers terribly so that no one else has to. What if that really was the bargain? Of the thirty or so people in the room that day, nearly all of us concluded that we’d never accept it. Knowing and choosing to let a single child suffer that way was simply not acceptable no matter how great the payoff. And yet, in making that choice, we would likely make suffering far more prevalent. We all have a lot of experience living in places that are not Omelas, and I think we can agree that the suffering of children is a hell of a lot more widespread in our world.  The description of the child’s ordeal in the story is horrifyingly similar to the real life account of Danieal Kelly (which I will not rehash here, but if you have a strong enough stomach for it can be easily looked up). We already have children locked away in basements and suffering, and we sure don’t get Utopia in exchange for it.

So why would we forego what would clearly and inarguably constitute a significant and material improvement in the quality of life for just about everyone? The answer, I think, is hope. (Some might prefer “faith,” and they could be right too.) We need to believe that the world can be improved beyond compromise, that it is at least possible that no one has to suffer, even if we recognize that the probability of ever realizing that vision is miniscule. That hope drives us, makes us seek new solutions, take risks, work harder, solve problems. The recognition that we are nowhere near achieving it troubles our dreams (sleeping and waking). Le Guin tells us that in Omelas there is no guilt. But that disquiet that lives somewhere deep inside all of us is part of our own compromise. Without it we are simply naïve. To know of suffering and not be moved to address it is the very definition of hopeless. So we accept our brutal imperfection, and go on hoping. And working.

What’s true of us as individuals seldom applies to all of us as a society, though. Policy is based on accepting bargains far less favorable than that of Omelas: more suffering in exchange for less Utopia. And in our policy debates most of us accept that something is better than nothing. Maybe it’s because we are farther removed, that we don’t feel as personally responsible for the suffering those policies inherently accept. Maybe it’s because we don’t think the hope that drives us as individuals could possibly be shared more broadly. (The historical record would support this view.) In my work as a researcher and an advocate, I tend to lean toward the pragmatic, so these questions are very uncomfortable for me. It’s only at the Workshop that I feel less like I’m accepting the bargain, walking away from Omelas and into something that is largely unknown, but also uncompromising.