On Instagram I wrote a post about the Sin Eater card from Divine Muses Oracle and I've been mulling that over since. It reminded me of a short story by Ursula LeGuin called The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas and a post I had written about it years ago. You can find it as an ebook on Amazon, and I would highly recommend you read it, although be forewarned it is a cautionary tale and not filled with light but with contemplation.
STOP HERE AND DON'T READ FURTHER IF YOU ARE GOING TO READ IT!
Omelas is the backwards rendition of a sign the author saw for Salem, Oregon and in the story is a city whose people live in perpetual happiness. But it is not the fairy tale happiness that exists completely outside of suffering because that, says the narrator, wouldn’t be believable. For the cities happiness comes with the price–one child’s complete and utter suffering. One child locked away, never spoken to, never let out of the closet, fed only enough to live, wasting away to idiocy in their own waste. One child suffers so that all can be free of sorrow. The question of the piece is whether one person’s suffering is worth the price of the majority being happy.
The Ones Who Walk Away is what is termed a psychomyth, Le Guin writes in the forward that the central idea is that of “the scapegoat,” which turns up in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. Le Guin, however, got the idea from something that Jame’s wrote in “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life”:
Or if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier’s and Bellamy’s and Morris’s utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torment, what except a specifical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?
“The dilemma of the American conscience can hardly be better stated,” noted Le Guin. For myself, it all ties into the looming question of the myth of redemptive violence–can there truly be peace if said peace is bought with blood shed and violence? “The joy built upon successful slaughter is not the right kind of joy; it will not do; it is fearful and it is trivial.”
The interesting twist on the story is that everyone in the city knows of the suffering of the one. There is no blind eye turned unless it is deliberate. They are each taken, as they are old enough to understand, to look into the closet at the discarded human, to see the price of their happiness–and their happiness is the more sweeter because of knowing the price. They all see the existence of suffering, they even cry for it, rage, become depressed for awhile, see the injustice, but most eventually accept it and move on with their lives.
They know that they, like the child, are not free. They know compassion. It is the existence of the child, and their knowledge of its existence, that makes possible the nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science. It is because of the child that they are so gentle with children. They know that if the wretched one were not there snivelling in the dark, the other one, the flute-player, could make no joyful music as the young riders line up in their beauty for the race in the sunlight of the first morning of summer.
This story continues to be so incredibly relevant and powerful. Because while most people in the city come to accept the reality of “peace at a price,” not everyone does. Some refuse to have happiness with the price of suffering for others, some walk away--some become The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.
What is the point, of all this, there really isn't a point, just an intersection to think and muse on this concept. The concept of the Sin Eater, the one that purposefully or by force takes on the what others cannot carry is as redemptive as chosen sacrifice for the good of others that we see in saviors, in soldiers, in our heroes, but also as complicated as the way that society has over and over placed the things we cannot bear, the price for our happiness, onto the other, the monster, the whore, so that we can look in the mirror, straighten our shoulders and smile.