09/06/2011 10:12 am ET | Updated Nov 06, 2011

Happiness In 'Omelas' Depends on the Suffering of a Single Child. Could You Live With That?

My site went on vacation for a few weeks in August. A lot can happen in a few weeks, and a lot did. But what stands out is a two-week course in Computer Graphics & Game Design that our 9.5-year-old daughter took while Butler was on holiday. Every weekday at 8 a.m., like suburban parents, we'd drive her to Columbia University; at 5 .m., we'd collect her. With only a few breaks, our child mastered platforms, added music, designed a cover and produced two games.

For two weeks, she was on fire.

We overheard her on the phone one evening, chatting with a friend.

"How amazing would it be to have your very own computer game?" she said. "WELL, I DO!!!!"

For 10 days straight, I saw on our kid's face the thrill of mastering the creative process, the thrill of producing something of value. Yes, it's important that she completed her school's summer homework: a thick booklet of math problems and four books. But none of that touches what she learned about herself at Columbia or the dreams that follow.

Our daughter's triumph also breaks my heart.

We live 10 blocks from kids who don't have any of her advantages -- and if certain people have their way, they never will.

I didn't always feel there was any connection between our kid's happiness and the dullness of those kids' lives.

But during Butler's time off, I began to read Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? by Michael Sandel, a Harvard philosophy professor who examines the big questions by linking them to contemporary issues. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

In the book, Sandel refers to The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, a story by Ursula LeGuin. [It's online, free, and not very long, if you want to read it.]

The story is simple: In Omelas (the name is Salem, Oregon, reversed), happiness reigns. There's no king. No slaves. No police. Very few laws. But...

In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window. A little light seeps in dustily between cracks in the boards, secondhand from a cobwebbed window somewhere across the cellar. In one corner of the little room a couple of mops, with stiff, clotted, foul-smelling heads, stand near a rusty bucket. The floor is dirt, a little damp to the touch, as cellar dirt usually is. The room is about three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet or disused tool room. In the room, a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect....

The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes -- the child has no understanding of time or interval -- sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come in and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes. The food bowl and the water jug are hastily filled, the door is locked; the eyes disappear.

The people at the door never say anything, but the child, who has not always lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother's voice, sometimes speaks. "I will be good, " it says. "Please let me out. I will be good!" They never answer. The child used to scream for help at night, and cry a good deal, but now it only makes a kind of whining...

They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. 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.

This is usually explained to children when they are between eight and twelve, whenever they seem capable of understanding; and most of those who come to see the child are young people, though often enough an adult comes, or comes back, to see the child. No matter how well the matter has been explained to them, these young spectators are always shocked and sickened at the sight. They feel disgust, which they had thought themselves superior to. They feel anger, outrage, impotence, despite all the explanations. They would like to do something for the child. But there is nothing they can do. If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed.

Those are the terms. 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 happiness of one: that would be to let guilt within the walls indeed. The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child. Often the young people go home in tears, or in a tearless rage, when they have seen the child and faced this terrible paradox. They may brood over it for weeks or years. But as time goes on they begin to realize that even if the child could be released, it would not get much good of its freedom: a little vague pleasure of warmth and food, no real doubt, but little more. It is too degraded and imbecile to know any real joy. It has been afraid too long ever to be free of fear. Its habits are too uncouth for it to respond to humane treatment. Indeed, after so long it would probably be wretched without walls about it to protect it, and darkness for its eyes, and its own excrement to sit in. Their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it. Yet it is their tears and anger, the trying of their generosity and the acceptance of their helplessness, which are perhaps the true source of the splendor of their lives.

Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness. They know that they, like the child, are not free. They know compassion. It is the existence of the child, and their knowledge of its existence, that makes possible the nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science....

There is one more thing to tell, and this is quite incredible. At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or a woman much older falls silent for a day or two, then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth or girl, man or woman. 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.

I am haunted by that story, haunted by that child -- haunted by all the children who are being discarded while our child and, I imagine, your children and grandchildren imagine they can fly high and far. I have no idea what to do about what I feel; I've never felt dumber. But from time to time, over the next few months, I hope to come back to the issue of our declining middle class and our beleaguered poor and try and find an answer smarter than "pragmatism."

I want to find out where the people go after they leave Omelas. I like to think you too would be interested in knowing that.

[Cross-posted from]

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