G and the Brown-Skinned Man: Reasons to Walk Away from Omelas
Updated: May 13, 2020
There is a man that exists in near-complete darkness, somewhere. He is smallish in stature, brown-skinned, and middle-aged. He’s in what appears to be slacks and a dress shirt, open to his chest. Both are nondescript and cheaply made.
This man stands in a concrete room. The only light therein comes from a single bulb that is ineffectual for chasing the darkness away. Coming closer to him, we can see the man leaning awkwardly as if his leg is hurt. Or is it his side? Yes, he seems to be both holding his ribs and favoring one leg.
The man is in deep pain.
As we approach, we can see his face. It is bruised. One eye is swollen almost shut. Dried blood is on the side of his mouth. Odd discoloration is all over his face and neck. His clothes, upon further examination, are soiled with what looks like vomit and blood. A shirtsleeve is torn.
While there is certainly a significant physical component to his agony, there’s more to it than that alone. This man is wondering what will become of his wife and two small children. If his torturers will do this to him, he thinks, what will they do to his family?
Might they leave them alone, and allow only him to suffer? He hopes so. But does this wish come too late? How long has he been down here, in this room so far away from all that he once knew and cherished, anyway?
It could be days, weeks, or months.
However long it’s been, it’s long enough for him to wonder what other people are doing besides offering some assistance to him.
He is sure that right now, people are strolling in Paris, laughing, and eating gelato.
He imagines that somewhere a man has just paid cash for a Lamborghini.
He can see in his mind’s eye an American woman feeding her well-dressed child a $7 bar of chocolate.
The man imagines people in general living carefree lives - particularly in North America. Some of these residents appear to be privileged, some less so. But all share one thing: they know nothing of him. He was never known to these people, nor can he be. The media that dominates those airwaves don’t talk about people like him. That a man in his condition might exist seldom crosses their minds, if ever.
But this is not his core fear. What really terrorizes this man is the idea that even if the privileged citizens of the world knew he was there in a lonely concrete room, a man who did nothing to deserve this harsh treatment, no one would care. He doesn’t want to believe this. But it seems to be what he is experiencing, which pushes him into new fathoms of depression.
From time to time he wonders at the depth of the illusion of safety with which he once lived his life. Even he, who long suspected that things were not as rosy as they seemed, never imagined he would end up in a concrete cell, apparently underground, where the only noise he hears is his own humanity slowly leaking away.
Who is he? I can’t really say. He’s simply someone I’ve “seen” and “felt” for the bulk of my life. I don’t know how. He and his situation are so clear in my mind’s eye that it feels more like a memory than a fantasy. The dearth of hope he feels is palpable. The void of anything like springtime, or a sunrise, is as thick and dark as the evilest of nights.
Is he a political prisoner? He could be. Or he might be a whistleblower, or any number of activists. He might have been protesting a pipeline, or the decimation of a rainforest. He might be a lawyer for either of these causes.
But I’ve long suspected that he is where he is because he protested an action by his government which had been paid by a wealthy nation to do their bidding at the expense of a local population (see “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man,” Perkins). Bribes are part of this interaction, as well as actions that are against all forms of basic decency. These acts are meant to further enrich a few who are already wealthy and make poorer those who already barely exist. The man might have merely made his concerns known.
The greater point is that, although this man certainly exists in one form or another, for one reason or another, we haven’t made space to care about him.
There are some organizations that do search out people like this man. Amnesty International is an example of one of these. I once got involved with this worthy non-profit. I committed to sending letters on their behalf, to do my part to get a few countries to hear the will of people about certain political prisoners. My responsibility was to write 5 letters and mail them. I wrote the letters, put them in envelopes, and stuck them in my planner, intending to buy stamps and get them in the mail.
I never did.
Somehow, they got lost in my life, in my busy-ness. Its acts like these that I am often most ashamed of, these sins of omission. These are often the most senseless. I did the work - all but that which was required to bring it to fulfillment.
The brown man in the cell was tragically correct when it comes to me. In this case, anyway.
Speaking of those who suffer terrible violations alone, I once dated a wonderful woman who I’ll call G. She is beautiful, inside and out. She is accomplished as an inventor and as a consultant of sorts. Her invention brings her enough money to sustain her comfortably if she wanted to live a life of relative leisure. But she loves her profession, too, so she does that as well. She rides horses and was a professional comedian for a while. I’ve never laughed so hard and so consistently as I did when I was with G.
But she had some dark, dark secrets.
On our first date, she told me that she had been through some difficult things with her Dad, and that because of these things she had “dissociative identity disorder”, or DID. When I asked what that was, she looked uncomfortable and paused.
Then she said, “I have over a hundred documented personalities.”
I don’t know what my face did, but I’m sure my eyebrows raised. The movie, “Sybil” flashed across my mind from my childhood. I never saw it, but I remember being fascinated by the movie trailers and what I had read about it as a pre-teenager. It was about a woman with seven different personalities. The idea captivated me, even then.
How could that condition exist, and what did it look like, I wondered?
This memory came back to me as I sat with this lovely woman in an upscale restaurant in Bend, Oregon. The scene was the very picture of ease and privilege, yet our conversation seemed entirely incongruent with those things. Sybil had seven personalities and they made a movie about her. Now here was G sitting across from me, claiming to have over a hundred. I was too intrigued to care. I wouldn’t let this scare me off. Obviously, she had her stuff together. This must be a manageable situation.
The first of several times G “dissociated,” we were talking about the Sun Dance ceremony. I described the piercing part of it, and off she went. It wasn’t the fact that this is done, it was the fact that there is a ceremony with blood involved. That was enough to trigger her.
For 15 minutes, G spoke like a 5-year-old. She wouldn’t look up into my eyes. She mumbled things about me that weren’t true, but that a child might say to an adult that had wronged her, from her perspective. She was pretty brutal, if I remember correctly. Yet, as I had been pre-instructed by her, I didn’t push her. I spoke with her about her dog and other familiar, non-threatening things. I didn’t touch her. When it was over, she came back.
“It’s like trying to find a blank screen in a slide-show,” she told me. “I get trapped in memories and emotion until I can jump back out.”
Why had this conversation triggered her? I mentioned blood and ceremony. But over time, I came to understand the nature of her trauma and why this idea put her into that particular state. It turns out that the trauma G experienced might not be so incongruent with upscale privilege as I once imagined.
I have to stridently warn my readers at this point that what I am about to describe is horrific and potentially triggering. I make a note below where this part of the essay ends.
Her father worked for the State of Oregon, where he held a position of responsibility. He made a good living and her mother stayed home with G and her younger sister. On Sundays, the family went to church together, where her father often taught Bible study. They lived in a beautiful, old Portland neighborhood. From time to time, a well-known politician and his family would come over for family dinners.
All seemed to be right on the outside. But every year starting about Halloween and going through the holiday season, G told me her father would “get active.” What she meant is that “ceremony season” had begun.
I can’t bring myself to write the details of these ceremonies, nor is it necessary. Suffice it to say that the darkest of practices were involved. The deviant sexuality she and her sister experienced at the hands of her father was beyond sick and evil, but it was not the worst of it. G told me that she saw young children tortured and sacrificed. An altar was involved. The young people were usually runaways, she told me, but not always. And the whole I-5 corridor was a highway for their kidnapping and transport. She had seen it with her own eyes. Unfortunately for her, and all of us really vis a vis her story at least, her father involved both his daughters and all he did in the name of his God.
He didn’t do it alone.
The people who came over – all men, apparently – she often recognized from TV. She never came out and said it, but the politician I mentioned seems to have been involved. I might be wrong on that, but it’s not particularly important to my point since I’m not going to mention his name, ever (so don’t ask). Her mother was not involved in this behavior, but she would not protect her, either. In fact, she joined an overseas organization that took her away for weeks or months at a time from not only a marriage that was unhappy but also from the terrifying stories her daughters told her. Rather than confront the monster in her house, she acted nearly as monstrously: she ran.
NOTE: If you skipped the section above, it *might* be ok to jump back into the essay here.
Speaking of potential governmental involvement in these kinds of dark deeds, I once spoke to a man who had recently worked as an undercover investigator for a United States government agency. As our conversation became more familiar, he said it was simply a well-known fact that political men were involved in such things in his region of the country (the NE United States). Justice was unable to get to them for one reason or another. They were beyond the law. I can’t remember why this was so at this point, but his answer to my question about this made tragic sense to me at the time.
All this, from the victims to the untouchable and often official nature of the perpetrators I have corroborated with one of my best friends, who heard similar stories as a practicing psychologist in Northern California. The mere ideas of these stories are heavy burdens for us to carry. But those burdens are nothing compared to those carried by the victims.
The men back East and G’s father did (and are doing) what they do in the name of God. Many profess to believe in the Bible. From my conversations with the undercover man and G, they seem to be so-called “extreme right-wing” people who use Old Testament ideas to support their behavior.
Now, I have no idea how you use the Bible to get to acts like the ones my friend described. Well, that’s not entirely true. It’s true that Abraham was going to sacrifice his son on an altar to his God, isn’t it? I suppose there’s that. So, maybe we at least have an idea about how that line of thinking could possibly start. But how does a human being go from the adored prophet Abraham to the kinds of acts that victimized G?
I have an idea about this, too.
There’s a book called, “The Family” (Jeff Sharlett) that speaks about the author’s experience in a group home in Virginia where young men are groomed for US governmental positions of power. He names names, and some are people we all know from the national political arena. It’s an eye-opening book, to say the least.
To them, the true God of the Bible is Jesus, and the privilege he grants is a reward for personal righteousness, or at least a certain dependability and consistency in their religious zeal. This is certainly not a foreign concept to us if we are familiar with Religion.
But to these people, Jesus is all about power. Not service, humility, or even love. They reason, “Who else raised the dead, restored sight, and cast out demons?” Jesus is pretty much it, as far as they’re concerned. Therefore, they surmise, the powerful are those who are favored of God, as long as they “believe.”
The next leap of logic for these people is that in the halls of leadership in America, whatever the Christian powerful do is the will of God. Because if they weren’t going to do the will of God, He would already have removed them. (Take a look at the current political landscape and see if it seems this idea has taken hold. I think it clearly has.)
I guess from a distant empathetic standpoint, I can see how a mind that believes such wayward things can move to acts of literally unfathomable darkness. After all, is this not the same “flavor” of reasoning that led to the genocide of the Native Americans? They were deemed less than human, were they not? Unwashed? Unredeemed? Is not “Manifest Destiny” the stillborn child of Reason for those that see themselves as the righteous and powerful arm of God? Were the Native people not removed by brutalizing power, backed by Christianity? If there is any doubt about the Christian connection to our freedoms – including economical - and how they dovetail with all I’ve described above, either you don’t want to know the connection, or you’re naive.
G eventually broke up with me. “You’re too crazy,” she said. I still get a chuckle out of that, as much as it’s made me pause from time to time in wonder and self-evaluation. I haven’t been in touch with her for several years now.
I want to bring one more thing to your attention, and then I’ll close this difficult missive with a request.
The celebrated and recently passed Ursula K. LeGuin, a Portland Oregon resident and celebrated author, wrote one of my favorite short stories. It’s called, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” “Omelas” is “Salem, O” spelled backward. She did this on purpose. I was raised in “Salem-O,” so this is particularly interesting to me.
In the story, there exists a beautiful, idyllic city. There can be no land as beautiful as this. The inhabitants are radiant. The leadership is inspired and wise. The weather is perfect. Abundance abounds. A grand parade showcasing all this is taking place as Ms. LeGuin winds her readers around her capable fingers.
So, where is the problem in the story? The source of conflict to be resolved, as all good stories have?
It’s this: in the dirty basement of an old building, in a broom closet-sized room, there exists a small child. Once completely healthy, he is now malnourished, and undersized because of it. He lives in near-complete darkness, which has caused him to become blind. He no longer calls out for his mother, but occasionally asks to be let out. He sits in his filth and makes senseless noises. He is fed and watered only minimally. Like the brown man who I spoke about before, he is entirely alone.
What Ms. LeGuin shows us in the tale is that somehow, for reasons unknown to us, this child’s existence is the key to the happiness and contentment of the citizens of Omelas. Were the child to be rescued, were anyone to speak a kind word to him, all the beauty experienced outside would cease. On one level, all the residents of the town know this to be the case. In a masterful stroke of storytelling, the author makes no attempt to explain why this is so. It simply is.
The Omelas residents who are vaguely aware of the child are like the people in our culture who have no concern for what happened in the past in this nation, to the Natives or the Slaves, even as they enjoy their present good fortune to the fullest; complete with a bulging, propped up stock market, low-interest mortgages, and cheap gas. For these, ignorance is bliss. And often, the more ignorance, the better.
Further along in the story, we learn that in Omelas there are others who, driven by curiosity, occasionally make their way to the filthy basement to see this tragic being. Most are shaken and walk away slightly altered before returning to their lives. These are the ones who, like I once did, write letters and never send them. They’re the ones that know something of Native genocide, or the truth about the continued settling and raping of the land and peoples of South America and who are still not shaken to their core. They know about the kinds of things that G experienced, and are overcome or otherwise unable to help. For one reason or another, these have given up and accept the world as it is. Maybe they hug their kids a little tighter.
The presence of these attitudes and absence of action alone doesn’t make any of these people “bad.” There’s more to being a bad human than that. But it does implicate those of us in this category, in particular. In a sense, we are just as complicit as the other inhabitants of Omelas. In some ways, more so.
Let me break from my narrative and say that no matter which of these categories we might inhabit, the fact that we do bears investigation of some sort. Decency requires a modicum of introspection here, doesn’t it? The truth, whatever it is, is not without consequence. Just as there is Energy behind every thought and action, there can be Energy in the decision not to engage.
“But,” some will ask, “can we solve all the world’s problems?”
This is a venomous question, and I reject it. It’s cynical at best. It comes from the same flavor of scoffing I experienced at Standing Rock when a heckler told me I was a hypocrite for protesting an oil pipeline after arriving at the site in a vehicle that depends on oil. As if I had any choice. After all, I had driven several tons of donated food and supplies there. What was I going to do, drag it in a handcart while the pipeline is being built?
No, that’s a ridiculous, childish argument made by ridiculous, childish adults.
When it comes to making real change, it all starts in precisely the same places: in the will to change and in the present moment. Besides, no one is asking us to solve all the world’s problems. That’s not even close to the point. The point – and it can be applied to most of our big problems – is this: respect for life.
Respect for life means that, while we don’t know our brown protagonist, we acknowledge that he exists, somewhere. While we don’t know G (or you don’t), we acknowledge that there are men and women who allowed her to be hurt. To these men and women, like the people of Omelas, their so-called happiness may well be tied to her mistreatment via misplaced religious faith and a vast misunderstanding of the nature of reality. Unlike the residents of this fanciful land, modern power-seekers of this ilk worship a god of power who is only temporarily sated by blood and dark ceremony in defiance of reason.
But there’s more to it than that.
Respect for life extends to cattle in muddy feedlots. It encompasses the people of Flint, Michigan, and the families who can light their water on fire due to nearby fracking. It’s illustrated in the words, “sustainably raised,” “hormone-free,” and “free-range” on the packaging of the food we eat. The lack of it is embodied in those of us who have no opinion about the taking of native lands and the burning of the South American rainforests in the name of soybean cultivation.
No, we cannot save the world. But has anyone asked us to do that? No. So, what can we do?
At the risk of sounding dismissive after all this, we can do what we can. But this is no apology for laziness.
What this means is that we must change our attitudes and behaviors. Some immediately. Some in the near and distant future. There is no space here to tell all the ways we can exhibit "care through change." Each of us would need to do their own inventory in those realms.
The point is the development of an attitude of caring. But how? Because “how” matters.
In “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” there is a third subset of people besides those I’ve already mentioned. These are they who visit the unfortunate child in the basement and are so moved that they walk away from Omelas. It is these unknown individuals for whom the story is named. We don’t know anything about these people, except that they leave. They leave idyllic life behind because the pain of this child is not worth their continued comfort. They presumably leave everything and walk into the unknown.
For these, their comfort is not worth their integrity.
My request is that we, each of us, take some time to think about G and the brown man. Take some time to think about The Family, and the letters you may have written and not sent. Think about the bacon in your refrigerator and the car you drive. Think about your freedoms, and the real price of cheap, petroleum-based fuel. Think about the last time you were thirsty, and how good clean, cool water tasted.
This is a good use of our busy human minds: serious introspection, including an appraisal of our core values – which for most of us includes the sanctity of life. We then address any discrepancies. Do we value only our own lives, and those of beings like ourselves? If we do, we need to admit this – and stop pretending otherwise. If that is the case, it’s best to admit it. But if we value life in general, we can proceed to ask, “what can I do to care for life, even that which looks different than my own?”
You may not get solar. You may not trade your Hummer for a Tesla (but please try). Those may not be within your capabilities. That’s ok. The real question again is what can we do? What can we do to communicate to the Universe by our actions that those who suffer, both human and non-human, are cared for and that we must have something more in alignment?
As you consider this, I want to apologize for the violence I’ve foisted upon you, reader. But it exists. Still, it is not to be concentrated upon, only acknowledged.
Because these stories are fearfully triggering. They literally can create fear and anger in our hearts, and there is more than enough of that in the world. None of the actions we might take, none of the changes we might make can be the result of fear or anger toward what is. Changes made in the names of those gods alone will never produce lasting change - or enough of it. No, when we come across stories like these, active awareness is the only acceptable result.
From there, if we are dissatisfied, only deep caring will do. And that, in the best case, is borne of Love. We must be consciously skillful enough to move from our heads to our hearts, and act from that place.
From an attitude of Love, we choose our beneficial actions. From an attitude of Love, we go without a few things, without complaining, in order to show respect for someone or something with fewer choices than we. From an attitude of Love, we look within ourselves at the real costs of our freedoms, and make choices that align with the truth that “freedom isn’t free.” And we will use that phrase in its deepest truth - rather than as a justification for further dubious wars that enrich a few at great cost to many, as it is usually used.
In the end, we have these freedoms, one way or another. It is time, right now, to ask what we can to show caring, love, and respect for our brothers and sisters, both human and nonhuman, who continue to suffer while we do not.
In a million ways both small and large, it’s time to begin our long walk away from Omelas, together.
(art: Kirill Pershin. Video adaptation by Leah Gross.)