Imagine That

Imagine That

Rev. Fiona Heath        November 22nd, 2015

Ursula Le Guin is the person I would most like to be. Her body of work  has made an deep impact on how I understand humanity and the world.

One of her most famous works is a short story entitled The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. This is a fable, a fairy tale.  Mostly it is a description of a place, Omelas, an idyllic city nestled between sea and mountains.

It is the Festival of Summer. 

Bright flags are on the rigging of the ships in the harbor.  Processions filled with music and chatter move towards green fields where there will be horse races.  Bells are joyously clanging.

The people are happy.

This is a place without kings, without slaves, or stock exchanges or advertisements or secret police. 

But there is beer.  And sex.  

These are not simple folk, or bland utopians, boring in their happiness.

“How can I tell you about the people of Omelas?  They were not naïve and happy children – though their children were, in fact, happy.  They were mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives were not wretched.”

At the fields of the Festival of Summer  red and blue tents offer the marvelous smell of cooking.  The youth are on the horses, who have ribbons braided into their manes.  Sunlight.  Singing.  

The splendor of the summer, the communion of souls, the celebration of life, all this swells the hearts of the people of Omelas.

Doesn’t it sound good?  A utopia. So beautifully alive.

There is one more thing.

Somewhere, in a cellar is a room.

It has one locked door and no window.

In one corner is a couple of mops and a rusty bucket.

There is a child.  It could be a boy or a girl.

It looks about six, but is nearly ten.

It has been destroyed by fear, malnutrition, neglect.

It is afraid of the mops.

Sometimes the door opens and a person, or several people look in.

They do not speak to the child.

Food and water is given and the door is locked once more.

All the people of Omelas know about the child.

They know it has to be there.

They understand that their happiness, the beauty of the city, their health and wisdom, depend wholly on the child’s desperate misery. 

That is the terms of the agreement.

Children are told about the child when they are between eight and twelve.

They visit and are horrified.  They want to do something for the child.

But there is nothing they can do. 

The terms are absolute.

If the child was brought out into the sunlight, cleaned and fed and cared for,

in that day, that hour, all the prosperity of Omelas would wither away.

“All the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas [lost] for that single, small improvement, the happiness of thousands for the chance of the happiness of one.”

“Often the young people go home in tears, or a tearless rage, when they have seen the child and faced this terrible paradox.”

In time they come to accept the terrible justice of reality.

That the child is past saving, it is too damaged to know any real joy.

It has been afraid too long to ever be free from fear.”

It is, perhaps, their tears and anger, the acceptance of their helplessness, which is the true source of the splendor of their lives.

Their happiness is not foolish or careless.

They know they are not free.

They know compassion.

With the awareness of the pain of that child’s existence, the people of Omelas create their most beautiful architecture and write their most poignant music.

It isn’t such a utopia now.

There is one more thing.

“At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all.”

“Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and 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.”

The ones who walk away from Omelas.

This was the story of my activist twenties.

The story seemed clear to me, that a society based on suffering, on such cruel exploitation, was corrupt at its foundations. That such happiness, however tempting, was a lie.

Anyone with integrity walked away. 

Refused to be part of the injustice,

refused to live on the basis of such terrible suffering.


The ones who walk away from Omelas go someplace indescribable, unimaginable.

I think Le Guin is saying is that utopia does not exist.

She can’t describe such a place because there is no place of pure happiness.

That the happiness and the suffering of life are inseparable.

To want only the happiness means the suffering has to go somewhere else.

Distilled in this fable to one small miserable child.

Happiness and suffering are inseparable.

This doesn’t mean that happiness has a dark side.

Just that life, for everyone, includes both.

We all have days of wonder and delight.

And we all have days of terrible sadness.

To try to avoid the suffering is the problem. So we try to live well knowing that pain is lurking near by.

I think this is the individual interpretation.

But this fable is also a political one.

It isn’t really possible to walk away from Omelas.

I tried. I tried pretty hard in my twenties.

I chose a low income, living lightly on the earth lifestyle.

Vegetarian, biking, co-operative, second hand, recycling, local food life.

I found a community of like minded souls who all wanted to live simply.

But over the years, I’ve realized I still live in Omelas.

Child labour sewed my shirt and built my phone.

Migrant labour picked the apples I eat.

I live on land that was taken unfairly from the first nations people.

I live well by virtue of being born white and middle class in Canada.

I live well on the misery of others.

We can’t walk away from Omelas.

There is nowhere to walk away to.

No land that is perfectly happy and without suffering or exploitation.

Although I hear good things about Iceland.

So the question becomes how do we live in Omelas?

How can we free the child?

Can we sacrifice all the good we have for the slim chance of something even better for all people?

Equity has been a sadly appropriate theme this month.

This week the world feels ugly. 

A dark, bleak place filled with despicable acts of violence, simmering war, full of fear and hatred.

A place where inequity and injustice has ruled for so long that all people can do is lash out in anger.

Where political ideology trumps mercy and compassion.

The bombings in Beirut and Paris, the attack in Mali, the on-going destruction of Syria by its own government.

All the refugees fleeing war and ecological destruction.

There are no easy answers.

We live in a system of extremes, that encourages all that disparity.

Some countries are wealthy, others desperately poor.

Most cities around the world have bright and shiny towers at the centre and rickety slums at the edges.

So many people are marginalized with no place to belong.

As Unitarians, we try to see the world as it truly is, the ugliness as well as the beauty.

We need to acknowledge the suffering, the ugly truth of disparity.

It’s very hard to open the door and look at the child.

But if we can sit with the pain and sorrow, it is possible to move forward.

The quest for equity reminds us that we are all in this together.

We are all diminished when one child lies in misery in a locked room, or dead on the shores of a Greek island.

All are saved when one is saved.

Equity isn’t a matter of  just being nicer to those different from ourselves.

Equity says there is no integrity in having a lot when others don’t have enough.

Equity is the attempt to close the gap.

Equity says that justice and peace are intertwined.

Our task is to open the door.

To open the door and bring out the child.

Our task is to help the suffering child and let the world change.

If we wish to live out our principles, to seek justice, equity and compassion,

if we wish a world community based in peace, then this is our task.

And it is a tough one.

Change brings risk, but social change is necessary if we are to live in a way that leaves no one behind in misery.

Things will be different, we will have to adapt.

Luckily we have each other.

With open hearts and a caring community, we can face the inequity of living.

We will see pain and misery, but we also find hope.

While there has been fear based anti-Muslim, anti-refugee actions and comments this week in Canada, there have been far more affirmations of support.

Canadians are throwing open their arms to welcome refugees.

Canadians are standing with their Muslim neighbours.

Across the world, Unitarians are uniting in support of Rev. Fulgence of Burundi.

Having privilege gives us power. 

Gives us a voice. 

We can use that power to make a difference.

To refuse to accept fear based stereotypes.

We can use our gifts to work for a more equitable world.

It was one of our own ancestors, the Unitarian minister Rev. Theodore Parker, who first spoke the words now associated with Martin Luther King.

Parker said “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”   

When Parker wrote those words, slavery was still part of American society.

The world is a better place now, but there is still work to be done.

I have great hope that we will be part of that good work.

May we be the ones willing to open the door.

May we use our gifts in the service of those in need.

With open hearts and a caring community, we can change the world.

So Say We All!


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