Today was my last day of college.

Naturally, I became reflective. I found my mind wandering to where I was at the beginning of college — all the ways I’ve changed and all the ways I’ve stayed the same.

At the same time, I spiraled into an oh-so-familiar future-oriented thought pattern. For the past few hours, I’ve found myself ruminating on the following questions, which have become constant companions over the past few months: whom will I be once I graduate? What role will I fill? What world awaits me?

These existential musings are to be expected for upcoming graduates — as seemingly normal and predictable as ordering your cap and gown. However, the ubiquity of these anxieties should not detract from their enormous and somewhat-damaging power.

When considering my role in the future, I’ve found myself fixated on a short story I read as a junior in high school and revisited this past semester, ‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.’ 

The plot is simple enough. Omelas is a picturesque town in an undisclosed location, celebrating a summer festival with a joyful array of citizens. There is music, dancing, and a strong sense of community. However, there is one caveat. There is a child who lives in a small closet in the basement of a building. Starving, alone, and dying, this child is a necessary accessory to the happiness and peace which characterizes the community. Without their existence, Omelas will cease to exist. 

Aware of the child, the citizens of Omelas view them as a necessary price to be paid. The happiness of many requires the suffering of others — it is the natural order of things. 

Some, however, cannot accept this viewpoint. Unable to tolerate the suffering of the child, they leave Omelas in the search of a more moral, tolerable existence. 

While short in length, this story has singlehandedly made an enormous impact on me as a student, thinker, and individual. It illustrates the most alarming, yet obvious, truth: we all tolerate the suffering of millions of individuals daily. 

This truth may seem painfully obvious, but in reality, I feel like this is a fact we do not confront often enough. It is uncomfortable to acknowledge — we avert our eyes at the woman asking for five dollars on the stoop, we brush off the sight of men doing yard work for unsustainable pay, we ignore the teenage boy shifting through a trash can for something potentially of value.

Aside from the daily reminders of inequality, we even more rarely stop to consider the unseen, indirect effects of our actions — we don’t think of the woman who is crocheting your 15 dollar top for meager pay in inhumane work conditions, we don’t consider the workers who work 18 hour days to harvest the berries you picked up at the grocery store, we don’t fixate on the child laborers in Congo who work in mines to produce microchips for your new Apple computer. 

I am guilty of this too. Daily, I make decisions that contribute to this seemingly endless cycle of inequality and oppression, without fixating on the consequences. 

Many subscribe to the argument: factors contributing to this inequality are systemic and deep-rooted, there is nothing I can do, so why should I ruin my day by fixating on it? 

I think that to an extent, this argument is valid. It is impossible to exist in this current system without indirectly contributing to a vast amount of inequality. Of course, it is possible to live more sustainably and morally, but even so — causing harm, whether indirect or direct, is unavoidable. Spending every waking moment of your life consumed is guilt, is not productive or helpful. But complacency is not the answer either. 

On the first read, the conclusion of the story is a bit unsatisfying. There are no answers or clear guidelines, no indication of where the ones who leave Omelas go. Furthermore, it seems to imply that exiting the system is the only way to live completely morally, which is probably true, but oftentimes impossible and extremely damaging to the individual. 

Upon further reflection, I started to shift away from a literal reading of the ending. I don’t think the author intended for all of us to exit society and live Walden-like lonely existences in cabins in the woods. However, what I think they were hoping for was for all of us to consider the following:there are more options than you realize. 

For many of us, our paths seem clear and predetermined. We have been pushed the following narratives by our parents, in schools, and in popular culture that we should seek a well-paying job in finance, medicine, law, or an adjacent field and strive to earn a good income and support a family. Oftentimes, considerations such as “is the life I am living supporting my ideal vision of society?” are placed on the back burner, or not considered at all.

Our capitalist society has led us all to be hyper-individualistic. Considerations of the community, both local and global, have largely been lost. We are focused solely on our happiness and in the process, have lost empathy, which has led us to a world governed by immense inequality. 

There are more options than you realize. Living in a cabin in the woods is not the only choice. Living a moral lifestyle can look so different for so many people. It could look like devoting your career to social change through working at a nonprofit, it could look like volunteering at your local community center, it could look like being an active citizen and getting involved in local politics to promote equitable initiatives. 

I believe all the author was hoping for was for us to open our eyes. To think about the child in the basement that we have all come to ignore, to avoid the ignorance that has characterized the generations before us, and ask ourselves: what role can I play in a fight for a more equitable society? What other paths are available to me?