AITA: Am I the Asshole For Not Walking Away From Omelas

Creative Nonfiction by Paul Crenshaw

I, (51 M), was born and raised in Omelas, and have lived here all my life. It is a beautiful town, bright-towered by the sea. The Festival of Summer arrives and the bells ring and under the great avenues of trees the stately processions begin. There is music, dancing. Arts and entertainment. In the evenings there is drink, and non habit-forming drugs. There may be an orgy, if you are so interested.

For whatever else there might be in my city, use your imagination. There are no soldiers, or clergy, for men must make their own decisions here, but other than that, create it however you like. I think you’ll find we have the same problems as other cities, and, like everyone else, are just trying to get through the day, standing under the stars and wondering what we are doing on this good earth. We try to be kind, to live our lives with joy.

What we don’t do is judge others. That’s one of our two rules. The people here are free to do as they please. I’ve mentioned drugs and orgies, so if those interest you, have two of each. Have a dozen. Have whatever you want. Make yourself at home.

The only other rule is this: down in the bowels of the city, in a small, dirty room, little more than a broom closet, is a child. There is nothing else in the room except a bucket of mops, which the child is afraid of. It stays as far away from the mops as it can. It sits in its own excrement. It picks listlessly at the scabs on its legs and buttocks. It cries in the night, small sobs that shake its small body as it begs to be released from this small dark room. No one knows its gender, or name. Maybe no one ever bothered to name it. Occasionally people come to see the child and when the door opens the child begs to be let out. It says it will be good if only someone will let it out, but those who come in do not respond to the child, except to gasp and shrink back from the scabs and the smells. They stand in the doorway looking, holding their noses. They are not allowed to say a kind word to the child. They cannot pick it up, or offer it food or love or even the slightest touch. Not a kind word or a hand on the arm. Not a hug or a whisper of comfort.   

When children are between 8 and 12, when their parents judge them old enough to understand, they are told about the child. Some go see the child; some do not. Some go multiple times. Some say they never think of it again. But all of us know the child is there. All of us know the child sits in excrement. We know the sound of its whispered words, even if we’ve never heard them firsthand. We know it is afraid of the mops. That it cries even in its dreams and some nights we dream of bursting in there and saving it. We hear the child begging to be let out and we pretend to carry it from that awful place and absolve ourselves of all sins.  

The problem is, we can’t. We don’t have a government, but this is from the bylaws of our civic code:     

“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.”

Strict and absolute, the terms all spelled out in writing. We know what will happen if even a kind word is spoken to the child, yet still some people talk about going down there to carry the child out. Give it a fine life. Make it happy. Take it from that dank dungeon with the mops and the horrors and bring it up into the light and give it love. Wrap it in swaddling clothing, shower it with affection.

Others rationalize. The child would never be happy, they say. The child was broken anyway—it could never learn to love, never embrace the act like the rest of us would. The child is sacrificing for the greater good of ourselves, they say, and the people who say these things are listened to, but it should be noted that everyone listening when these things are said also look away, as if, perhaps, they know the lie they’re selling themselves.  

Still others, once they realize the rules are strict and absolute, leave. I do not know where they go, none of us do, but we know they won’t be back. There’s no coming back from that, not once the thought digs in. Some people resist for a few months, maybe a few years, but eventually they leave. We see them go, and we wave as they walk down the street toward the mountains that ring our little town. They carry looks of blankness on their faces, their eyes glazed, as if they are seeing the world for the first time. The terrible awful beauty of it. The horrors and hopes. 

But lately a lot more people have been leaving. Lately a lot of people have been looking around at the suffering they see every day. First they start asking questions. “Why do we allow this to happen?” they say, and “How can I live in a country where this is seen as ok?”  

Some of them rage at the awful unfairness of it all and some of them cry at the cruelty. 

I CANNOT BELIEVE ANYONE WOULD EVER STAY IN OMELAS, they type in all angry caps on social media, and “Sorry I didn’t respond to your email,” they meme, “I was walking away from all the assholes in Omelas.”

People outside the city judge us as well. “Imagine letting a kid suffer like that,” they say, full of the outrageous energy social media supplies us with, and, “That fucking shit would never fucking happen in my fucking town. I would seriously beat the living fuck out of every single person in that shithole town to make sure this never happens ANYWHERE EVER AGAIN!!!!!”

Still others post pictures of starving, neglected children on social media and ask how we can do that to one of our own. They ask how we can allow such human suffering, but I say suffering is nothing new. I’m old enough to remember UNICEF ads and the AIDS epidemic. How in all the great artworks of war there is some small person going on about his daily life, or a horse plowing a distant field in the face of death. Now every bridge abutment has a homeless camp beneath it and at every intersection stands a man holding a sign we don’t want to see. Every unemployment office has a long line outside and every housing shelter holds a hundred secrets worse than the one we keep here. Every lit stovetop has a story to tell. Every abandoned dog limping alongside the interstate, every young child crying herself to sleep, every blue light spinning into the formerly-quiet night speaks to our abandonment of others.

At least here we go down into the darkness to look at it. At least here we wrestle with who we are because here we have to remember it every day. I was 11, my voice still a few years away from the serious tones of a man. It was cool and quiet in that basement. Pipes went overhead, and we had to duck down beneath the venting system. I almost didn’t see the door, small as it was.           

Inside the room I stood letting my eyes adjust to who we all are. The child, almost indiscernible as a child, sat in the corner, shit caked on its legs and lower back. Its eyes were crusted with sleep and infection, and the thin mewling sound it made, almost like a newborn kitten, made me think it would not live much longer. The infected eyes were begging for help, one hand half-raised in what it already knew was a futile gesture, and I stood there until whomever had taken me down could no longer stand it themselves, and bore me away, back up into the light and laughter of the city.

For weeks afterward I went nowhere. I did all the things people do: rage and weep and beat their fists in the air. I looked at the mountains, where the people who left went, and I wondered what they did there. I thought, even at that young age, that they went to kill themselves, that here was a moral quandary they could not reason themselves out of.

But maybe they just went someplace else, where the suffering of the world is not so prominent. I don’t know where that would be, but maybe there’s some quiet place that promotes forgetfulness. Some mountain or island where a man can be alone, since that seems to be the only way we can escape ourselves.     

The thing is, you can see suffering every day, no matter where you are. You don’t need to read fiction to find horror in the world. Every adult knows darkness is absolute at that age, and every child knows how awful the sound of a closing door can be. Some days love and loss look so much alike they both offer comfort, and everything that brings hope can also bring horror because for every blessing there’s a child in a broom closet.   

The question then is this: am I the asshole for staying? For accepting the suffering of the world and embracing my own good fortune? For allowing great swaths of time to go by when I am not wracked by guilt? Am I the asshole for accepting the sweetness that has been given to me? You think you would leave? Then why haven’t you left where you are?

Le Guin, Ursula. “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” New Dimensions, Vol. 3, October 1973.

Paul Crenshaw

Paul Crenshaw is the author of the essay collections This One Will Hurt You, published by The Ohio State University Press, and This We’ll Defend, from the University of North Carolina Press. His third collection, on the Cold War culture of the 1980s, is forthcoming from The Ohio State Press. Other work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Nonrequired ReadingThe Pushcart PrizeOxford AmericanGlimmer Train, Tin House, and Brevity