Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Walking away from Omelas

Recently I read a short story by Le Guin entitled walking away from Omelas.  In this story there is a community where everything is perfect, where people are happy and have learned how to reject things destructive, to accept the things that are different but not destructive, and to celebrate joy.  There's only one problem.  For some cultural reason, the whole community is certain that its well being, happiness, and prosperity all come from allowing one child to be neglected and abused.  They all know this child exists and all feel bad about it.  But since allowing that one child to suffer is what keeps the society working properly they feel that there is a terrible justice about it and will refuse to speak even a kind word to this child and find ways to rationalize that nothing could be done about it anyways because the child has become almost inhuman as the result of long mistreatment.  In general people accept it as an unfortunate but necessary reality.  But there are some in the community who reject this devil's bargain of prosperity at the price of anyone's pain.  They simply leave.

Probably one of my weaknesses in life is a tendency to self indulge in certainty.  This is of course a rather human trait.  Most people would probably prefer certainty to pleasure or goodness in most areas of life.  Fighting someone can feel more certain and more empowered than asking for forgiveness.  Ending relationships can be more certain and empowered than holding out to see if they can be repaired.  A war can be simpler than negotiations.  There is nothing unique about being addicted to certainty.

But over the last few years I've noticed that my certainties put me at odd with any kind of sense of right and wrong that I could understand.  I found that I had been, without allowing myself to notice it, justifying other people's pain in favor of my own certainties.  I had allowed myself to believe that other people must have moral defects in their character if they didn't agree with me, had allowed myself to believe only one side of the story in conflicts where human passions and weaknesses leave no one unscathed, or was convinced that my own sense of contentment with my own internal convictions about the world was more important than other people.  Innocent real people were getting hurt, I knew it, but I thought that their getting hurt was somehow the expression of some bigger divine truth where if I didn't accept their hurt as necessary and unimportant it would disrupt my own certainties and perceived harmonies with the world around me.

So I decided to defend people rather than a sense of certainty.  It's not that I want to question "right and wrong" or overturn all values or anything like that.  It's that now I believe in right and wrong, but disbelieve that somehow the stars are aligned in some magic way so that my own cultural attitudes and presumptions invariably declare for right and cast down wrong.  Culture is about the history of good and bad intentioned decisions and attitudes that were made for reasons that were compelling at the time, but it lacks the stamp of eternity.

So where does that leave me now?  When I hear of a dispute between historical figures in the past of my cultural baggage, I stop assuming that the winners writing history means they were right.  Might doesn't equal right in wars, politics, or ethics.  I feel a need to seek out both sides of an issue.  I'm somewhat compulsive about it now.  Instead of cultivating certainty I want to cultivate Christlike love.  Instead of telling people that I understand them and then telling them that their pain is their fault because I imagine them to be someone other than who they are, I want to listen.

Just because someone is hurting doesn't make them "right" anymore than being powerful makes you right.  But listening with compassion keeps me from assuming either one to be completely true.

So where does this leave my certainty about life?  Well, one might say that in part I am walking away from Omelas.  To the extent that my certainty gave me an excuse to be unchristlike, its time to change that.  Losing certainty hurts, but losing my humanity should hurt me more.

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