I have been haunted the past week or so with the scandal enveloping Penn State. Much as been written about it already – and I really have nothing fundamentally new to offer to this discussion. What I did want to share was a parallel that struck me recently about these terrible events and a lovely yet horrifying short story I had read a long time ago.
“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (Variations on a theme by William James) is a haunting short story by Ursula K. Le Guin. It is a short, sparse story, almost a parable, with almost no distinct characters.
It is about a beautiful city called Omelas, a city of happy people unburdened by any pain or sorrow. But this happiness is the result of a faustian bargain—a bargain where the happiness of all is dependent on having one child bear all the pain and sorrow of the entire city. This child lives in a dark, basement room, neglected and in constant pain. The story says that many people, though initially shocked, learn to accept this and seek to lead fruitful lives in Omelas. However, the story concludes that, there are always a few, who walk away, from the city, never to return. The story asks the question of whether it is, “right for the happiness of many to be built on pain and sorrow for one.”
I know that my synopsis does not do justice to the story. Do read it for yourself right here. Yes, right now. I can wait.
OK. Welcome back. Now wasn’t that a great story. I truly think it is one of the greatest stories ever written (at lease one of the greatest I have ever read).
So now coming back to the sorry state of affairs at Penn State. It seems to me that the Happy Valley in some sense struck a bargain similar to the one in the story. The entire football and university staff who knew or suspected what was going on chose to turn a blind eye to what was going on. The graduate assistant who stumbled upon the scene in the showers chose to let the child suffer to protect the good name of the program. The suffering of one child was worth it in exchange for maintaining the reputation of the football team or the University. The students who rioted after the firing of Joe Paterno were willing to make the same choice as well.
This is truly sad. I just hope that in the days and weeks to come, more and more people will have the courage to walk away from the Omelas.