How is one to tell about joy?
To be or not to be is no longer the question. This is.
When was the last time you encountered a story brimming with positivity and sunshine? When was the last time the main character searched for happiness above acceptance or approval or amour? When was the last time you read a description of contentment and truly resonated with it?
Now I confess, I enjoy dark shimmering poetry in all its morbid beauty as much as the next person. It is thanks to those works that we can find some source of enjoyment even under a looming shadow. But it has come to a point where seeing a piece of writing highlighting the beauty of joy is like finding a needle in a haystack.
The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid.
Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting.
And that’s the truth.
A truth I only realized when I read a masterpiece of moral fiction, in which the above mentioned sentences feature. The moment I read it I felt as though a veil had been lifted and I could see everything clear as day. It is a short story which, in its four pages managed to teach me more about the duality of misery and blessings than anyone I have ever met or anything I have ever read.
I give you: The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas by Ursula Le Guin.
This story is about a Utopian city by the name of Omelas, and the peace, harmony and perfection that reigns eternally within its walls. The start of the story attempts to describe the city and everything it comprises of: the architecture, the customs, the natural splendour, and of course, the people. It is here that much is said about the concept of happiness, more specifically the ‘correct’ kind of happiness.
Happiness is based on a just discrimination of what is necessary, what is neither necessary nor destructive, and what is destructive.
I am an avid reader of books; I have read many passages that strive to put into words the nature of happiness. I have seen happiness being compared to butterflies: enchanting, but elusive. I have seen it being defined as something that comes to you when negativity leaves your life, or when you begin to appreciate that which is already part of it. I have seen it being explained as the only state of mind that we control, and that we can choose to make constant, should we want to badly enough. When I ask people about happiness, I get varied responses: happiness is harmony; happiness is freedom; happiness is expensive.
But all this, you understand, is poetry.
It is not rational and it is not real. In actuality, everyone has their own standard and definition of happiness, and they explain it to you they way they believe it to be. But the way the author of this story expounds the nature of happiness applies to everybody, and that my friends, is beautiful.
All this talk of pristine glee goes on for half the story. At this point the writer notes that it is becoming somewhat of a fantastic tale, because we all know that one cannot simply have unchecked delight. Sorrow and celebration are two sides of the same coin. Yin and Yang. One does not exist without the other.
And that is precisely what this story attempts to convey.
The author now lets the reader in on a little secret, that there is single child that lives a torturous existence below the city, and the great bliss that the citizens of this city enjoy is predicated on the abominable despair of this child. Because if the child was freed, the city would crumble and its prosperity would turn to dust.
What’s more, all the people of Omelas know that it’s there, and have seen how it suffers.
At first, it sounds diabolical, doesn’t it?
But the author brings to our attention how that is the secret to the majesty of this supposed paradise.
Yet it is their tears and anger, the trying of their generosity and the acceptance of their helplessness, which are perhaps the true source of the splendor of their lives.
Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness.
They know that they, like the child, are not free. They know compassion.
And now you begin to see.
The presence of the child makes the story more credible. It makes the people human.
So what now? Are we to accept that these people are bound to their fates, as the child is bound to its own, and leave this tale of intertwined fortunes alone? Are we to pity the child and weep for it? Are we to pity the people, who have to live with this wretched reality in their faultless world? Do we have a choice?
Yes, we do. And so do the people of Omelas.
It is only in the last paragraph that the author brings in the true heroes of the tale. It seems like the inhabitants of Omelas have only two options: keep the city alive and ill treat the child, or save the child and destroy the city. But there is secret option number three, which only a select few hit upon.
They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back.
And that is the learning.
Boundless joy comes with brutal shackles, not freedom.
Freedom is different. Freedom is laughter. Freedom is tears. Freedom is guilt. Freedom is fear. Freedom is excitement. Freedom is heartache.
Freedom is the liberty to live. Freedom is the liberty to feel. Freedom is the liberty to be flawed.
And I am sure, that that is what the people who leave discover.
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.