For those of you who are unfamiliar with Ursula Le Guin’s short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” I would encourage you to read it right now. It will take less than ten minutes of your time, and it is one of the most potent short stories that I have ever read.
I’m hesitant to summarize such a story, because I know that I won’t do it justice. But for those of you who are too busy to read even just a few pages of thought-provoking fiction, I’ll explain that “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is a story about a utopian village where the happiness and well-being of all citizens is dependent upon the misery and suffering of one lone child who lives in a dark basement. All of the citizens of Omelas know about this child and understand that the wellbeing of their entire population is dependent upon this tragedy. However, every once in a while, there are those who choose to walk away from Omelas.
I’ll skip the typical literary analysis about the quantifyability of human suffering and the dubious morality of utilitarianism, and jump right to the question that lingers in my mind after reading and rereading this powerful piece: how can I walk away from Omelas?
I recently took a quiz on www.slaveryfootprint.org to see how many slaves I own. Of course, I don’t actually own any slaves – quantifying this number is similar to quantifying one’s carbon footprint. That plane would still fly even if I wasn’t on it, so do I really need to take responsibility for its carbon emissions? Similarly, children would be working in terrible conditions in factories in Taiwan, Pakistan, and countless other parts of the world, even if I didn’t purchase the clothes which they have been enlisted to sew. So how much responsibility for global slavery and misery should I rightfully take on my shoulders? Should I stop purchasing products that I know were made using forced labor (which is hard, if not impossible to avoid), even though I know that I, as one measly individual, won’t actually have any impact on the system which allows others to be enslaved? Or should I join United Students Against Sweatshops in an effort to implement policy changes? There have been times when I’ve been tempted to renounce all my possessions and run away to live in the woods, but that would deny the connectivity that is, according to many, the very essence of humanity.
I do my best to purchase fair-trade coffee, chocolate, and soaps, but that can get very pricey, especially given the controversies about the impact of marketing on our impression of what qualifies as fair. But I don’t think that buying fair-trade chocolate is akin to walking away from Omelas, and even with all of my efforts to be a conscientious consumer, this website still calculated that I inadvertently own 51 slaves.
In Le Guin’s story, the ones who walk away from Omelas seem to know where they are going. But I have no idea how to walk away from Omelas or where to go. The closest thing that I can come up with is to choose to live according to the principles of asteya and aparigraha. Asteya is one of the yamas, which is one of the Eight Limbs of Yoga (similar to the Ten Commandments for yogis), and is generally translated as “non-stealing”. Aparigraha means, “non-hoarding”. Together, these two yamas mean not taking more than your fair share, limiting yourself only to the amount that you need. A belief in abundance (shefa) is another principle of yoga, and abundance goes hand-in-hand with asteya and aparigraha. If you believe that there is enough bread for everybody, and that tomorrow there will still be enough bread for everybody, then you are able to thrive on the minimum amount of bread that you actually need.
At this point in my life, I feel powerless to change the global economic system or free anybody from slavery. However, by choosing to practice asteya and aparigraha, and trying to believe in abundance rather than be ruled by fear, I can reduce my consumption of unnecessary goods, thereby leaving more for others. If anybody else knows how to walk away from Omelas, then please, enlighten me – for now, I’ll settle for believing in abundance and making a bigger effort to limit myself to my fair share of the world.