Sunday, April 6, 2014

Love Vaster than Empires, and Judge More Slow By: Elizabeth Horner

The rest of the crew couldn’t understand him. As an empath of sorts, Ogsden should be the nicest of them all, the most careful to preserve good relations among the few people who would be going with him to an unexplored, and likely, uninhabited new world. Instead, he called up every negative emotion they had, like drawing water from a well.

Eventually, they learned to ignore him, and then to avoid his existence--- until one day, Ogsden ventured into the planet’s sea of tall grasses and disappeared forever.


In a very basic sense, this is the plot line of Ursula Le Guin’s short story, Vaster than Empires and More Slow, which I was asked to read for my Postcolonial Ecologies class last semester. From the beginning, I was intrigued by the idea that someone with unusual sensitivity to the thoughts and feelings of others would, instead of being sympathetic, becomes more--- well, sensitive--- in general. Everything was a touchy subject for him: from everyone’s first, uncontrollable reaction to his appearance, to the distaste they felt afterwards at his ability to probe their deepest secrets. The more they feared and mistrusted him, the more he felt the same for them, and the emotional circle just kept on spiraling downwards.

And yet, in spite of the originality in concept, this idea appears to make perfect sense. How could anyone expect someone who was constantly bombarded with people’s negative opinions--- forced to share in their anxiety, depression, and heartbreak though he played no role in bringing it about--- not become pessimistic? Why was he, an emotional mirror, being blamed for giving an accurate reflection of the atmosphere around him?

But that is exactly what we do. Perhaps none of us have met an Ogsden, but I believe that this same type of conflict appears in our daily life. Something we don’t perceive ourselves to have done, is picked up, and taken personally, by others. At work, you correct one of your co-workers on how to use some of the office equipment, and don’t realize that you are coming off arrogant in the process. In class, you speak with false deference to a teacher and they see you as disrespectful. You smile, icily, at your ex’s new girlfriend, and right away, they both know you’re jealous. After all, it’s not just the face you put over your emotions that gets conveyed to the people around you--- oftentimes, they can sense what is below the surface and see exactly what you don’t want them to.

This was often Ogsden’s problem. His co-workers talked to him politely, and therefore believed that they should be talked to politely in return. But he understood that what they said and what they felt were very different and disliked them for it. What’s more, he couldn’t put on a false-face like they did. He was incapable of showing any emotion that wasn’t genuine, or, for that matter, showing any emotion that wasn’t genuine to the other person either. He could be, literally, angry enough for the both of them.

Now you may wonder at the point of this article. You’re sure that “be nice” is part of the moral, somewhere, but no-one can control what comes to their mind, uncalled for, sometimes, and those stray thoughts do, in no way, make for a bad person. So, what might I say instead? Perhaps, I could give the same advice your mother has, which is, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say it at all,” but then I might remember the time that I went to school with a new hair-cut that no-one commented on, and so realized it was probably awful. No, no I’m not going to offer anything as straight-forward as that.

Instead, I’m going to ask that you do something that I did once I finished the story: re-read Ogsden.
I went back to every nasty comment he made, I re-examined all his attempts to get away from the crew, and I looked over the few times he seemed to get better, and I thought about how they made sense in light of what I grew to know about him. Because the judgments we make about people from the first might help us gather clues about what they’re about, but being willing to revise those assumptions in the face of new evidence helps show what kind of people we are.

The truth is that even the most obnoxious people we encounter have a reason for their rudeness which, legitimate or not, still strikes them as being valid. Perhaps, they, like Ogsden, are more aware of the pain surrounding them, and are mirroring it. We can be their shields. We can stop the cycle of having their own anger bounce back at them, where it multiples. Instead, let it blow past us. After all, this story has very little to do with extraterrestrial life; but merely tells us to Love Vaster than Empires and Judge More Slow if we want to understand humanity.

If you need help cope with environmental stresses and feelings of resentment that affect your daily functioning, Consolidated Care, Inc. may be able to help. Please call (937) 653-5583 for Champaign County residents or (937)599-1975 for Logan County residents. Consolidated Care is funded in part by the Mental Health, Drug and Alcohol Services Board of Logan & Champaign Counties. Services are provided to the indigent population and fees to services are based on a sliding income scale.

About the author: Elizabeth is a teen columnist and advocate. She contributes articles to several newspapers including Inquirer.Net Global Nation Edition, MegaScene, The Daily Advocate, County News on-line, and She can be reached at or

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