In honor of Ursula Le Guin, I’ll reflect on the power of The Ones and the central, most powerful question – so easy to ignore. But impossible to realize. Un-nuanced and unedited.
I read The Ones at 17, in the summer, at the ushering of an old hippie with granola cargo shorts halfway up his thigh. I remember the sensuous allure of the drugged-up sex fantasy. I remember the terror of the gray-grimed child. And I believed – at this point – in the power of the consumerist gospel. But hippies drag you from middle-class gospels towards painful egalitarianism. I remember thinking that I was dreaming days away in Omelas. And had yet to walk away. I’d seen the child and swallowed the shame and joined in the parade.
I started my first year of teaching – my first week – with The Ones. That began it all. I was terrified. And my kids still bring it up: “Would you walk away?” And I ask them if we’re in Omelas and they say yes. I ask them who suffers for the clothes on their backs and the shimmering minerals in their screens. They know, but they don’t walk away.
I first nearly walked away during the summer of 2017. I was 22, shirtless and tan, clearing underbrush for a garden. I farmed for a professor just outside of Asheville. We dug, walked, wandered, hiked, identified a myriad of plants. I was breaking things off with a lover and wasted the weeks. My walking away was poisoned by pain. I couldn’t quite find service. I couldn’t quite sleep right. They drank too much. And suddenly drugs showed up I couldn’t feel comfortable around and I fled back to middle class comforts and forgot the feeling of cutting greens to sit next to duck eggs, lentils and lazy wife beans, rice and smoked pork.
Le Guin posits walking away. What it means to walk away – into the mysterious painful freedom without comfort. And we often use The Ones alongside Bentham and Kant simply to explain away the horrors of utilitarianism. Truly walking away is too much. But Le Guin asks us what it would take to put on a rucksack and step outside of that godforsaken city. And we morally license ourselves to stay. Because now that we’re aware we’re no longer complicit.
I can’t get the image of Christ’s command to the disciples out of my mind:
And he called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. And he said to them, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics.a And whatever house you enter, stay there, and from there depart. And wherever they do not receive you, when you leave that town shake off the dust from your feet as a testimony against them.” And they departed and went through the villages, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere. (Luke 9:1-6, ESV)