Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Omelas and ESPHL

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, a story  by Ursela K. Le Guin, was one of the reading assignments for the Aspen Institute/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation "Excellence in State Public Health Law" (ESPHL) conference in Glen Cove, New York. The gist of this story is that the people in the town of Omelas are living a Utopian life where everything appears to be perfect. The town is beautiful, the people are happy and healthy, everyone has good housing and nutritious food, recreational opportunities abound, the weather is exceptional, and crime is absent.

However, under one of the community's beautiful buildings a child is kept imprisoned in "abominable misery" and squalor. Everyone knows about this child but no one offers help or even a kind word to the child because "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...The terms are strict and absolute."

Most of the people in Omelas have accepted those terms and have reconciled that the greater good justifies the prolonged misery of this child. But not everyone. "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 into the street and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas....they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back." No one knows where they go, "the ones who walk away from Omelas."

Discussion of this story was the first exercise of our meeting which focused on the impact of law and policy on public health. Some of the questions raised by the discussant were: why were some people walking away from Omelas? What was in their minds? What was their motivation? Where were they going?

The answers from the meeting participants were varied. Some attributed positive motivations (seeking a better and more honest society) to the "ones who walk away" while others criticized them for abandoning a child in distress when they knew that the treatment of the child was wrong.

Then the discussant asked, "what if there were two children, or a hundred, or a thousand? Would that have made a difference to people in Omelas? How many children would it have taken to change people's attitudes about the situation?

As I listened to the discussion, I began to see this child as a metaphor for the disparities in our own Omelas. We know they exist but ignore them for fear of potentially upsetting our comfortable existence and the "business as usual" approach to our daily routine. We justify their perpetuation as the price we must pay for our way of life.

While the story was fiction, I felt obligated to question the premise of the story - that the Utopian character of Omelas depended on the misery of one child. The reality is that a society is kept from its optimal potential by the presence of disparities. Even the people at the top of the socioeconomic ladder are negatively impacted by disparities in their community. This made me comment that the people of Omelas were either misguided or dishonest about how good their existence really was. I thought that they probably knew they could be better but changing the status quo was too risky. The people doing well had too much to lose to question what was going on.

At that point, the discussant changed the focus and asked, "What if the child was an elder near the end of life. What if that elder was put on an ice flow and set adrift? Would your thoughts about this story be different?"

That question certainly altered my thoughts. It transported me back to Grand Portage and the American Indian Health Symposium where I had been 48 hours earlier. It brought to mind a storyline that was frequently referenced at the Symposium. It was the story of American Indian children being taken away from their families and community and put into boarding schools - educational prisons as one tribal leader described them. The story also included the plight of elders (some of whom were part of the first storyline) who were being transferred off the reservation because of the lack of long-term care facilities. Victimized at both ends of life.

It was at that point that it struck me that the story of Omelas was not dystopian fiction but a realistic story about what has happened and is happening in our state. The questions raised in the discussion of the hypothetical Omelas story at Glen Cove were the questions also being raised about today's world at Grand Portage. They are the questions that all of us should be asking. What will it take for us to become motivated to effectively address disparities? One child? One senior? A thousand? Or an entire population group? And, if we become motivated, what should we do?

Whatever the answer, we should not be “the ones who walk away.” We need to be the ones who stay and help make the world better for those who are tortured and kept out of sight and in the process make our world more joyous for everyone.

Ed