A few days ago, a friend sent me a YouTube video of a flash mob in Russia. There really isn't any indication that it is anything more than an awesome flash mob dance until relatively late in the video.
If you haven't seen the video yet, watch it before continuing to read! The build-up and realization of what is actually happening is relevant to the rest of the blog post.
My favorite part of flash mob videos is when the crowd gets over the initial confusion of something bizarre and random happening in an unexpected place, and begins to simply enjoy the flash mob performance. The Russian flash mob video has even more emotion in it, as it evolves from just a dance into a wedding.
But there is something special about videos like that. It's not just the excitement of seeing a crowd react to something unexpected that is enjoyable... there is something more going on; there is emotion beyond that which is communicated in the frames of video.
I tweeted the video, and one of the responses was a link to another flash mob. This one apparently went viral some time ago, and I just missed it. It is a symphonic orchestra and choir performing in Spain. If you haven't seen it already, you should absolutely watch it:
There is a scene at 3:22 (link to a few seconds before that) of two little girls standing in the back, pretending to conduct the orchestra. They look so happy - it's very cool to see. I pointed out that scene, and the person who sent me the link said that the expression on the man's face at 4:09 perfectly reflects his own feelings while watching the performance.
What's interesting about these videos is that the happiness of the people in the videos is somehow contagious. It's like 'catching a sneeze' from someone in a TV show. There are plenty of movies, TV shows, and random videos on YouTube of people that are happy, and they don't make me feel happy.
That evening, my fiancé and I were discussing videos like this, and we came to a realization: we both love videos like this because they remind us that most people in the world just want to live their lives and be happy.
It isn't just that videos like this show people experiencing joy - there are plenty of videos like that. What's special about these videos is that when you watch them, you react to what is happening the same way the people in the video do.
That orchestra flash mob could have happened nearly anywhere in the world, and the crowd probably would have reacted in the exact same way. These videos make you realize that you, and everyone you know, actually have a lot in common with the people you are watching.
And that is the crux of it. These scenes remind you that most people in the world, in fact, actually have a whole lot in common - and most of them just want to be happy.
It reminded me almost immediately of what it felt like to watch "Where the Hell is Matt?"
There are few videos that give you a sense of shared humanity like that video does. That random dude traveling the globe and dancing happily with people from all over the world - people whose countries might hate each other, people whose religions might demand the death of each other as heathens, or even people whose political leaders use demagoguery to prey on fear and uncertainty, drumming up hatred of others to convince the populace they are the necessary defense of what is virtuous - his dancing with all of them reminds you that overriding everything else, those people are human beings; all of them have far more in common than they ever will in contrary.
Philosophical and ideological differences can be so polarizing that leaders of such groups put significant effort into emphasizing how different they are from some other group; they explain the situation in terms of how little they have in common.
But, as disparate as the peoples of the world sometimes seem, there is always one shared feature that is so obscenely obvious, it is almost never a part of the discussion. And, yet, it is the only rational point from which to start any discussion of judgement regarding another person:
That person is a human being.
To my knowledge, there is no one that has expressed this sentiment, and philosophy, as eloquently and completely as Carl Sagan. As an astronomer, astrophysicist, and cosmologist, Sagan dealt directly with the incredible immensity of the cosmos. He was part of the science discovering how tremendous and amazing the universe is, and through his work grew a particularly unique insight into the beauty and importance of the humanity that we all have in common.
This passage from 'Cosmos' is by far and away one of my favorite pieces of prose. The prose is below, if you want to read it without the video / voice-over.
There are definitely some bad lemons in the world, but most people just want to be happy. From the perspective of the cosmos, humans are simultaneously unique and incredibly similar, and we have the ability to share great happiness or cause great sorrow. When you watch people creating happiness, such as those random displays of joy and beauty in the videos above, it's hard not to think "humans are awesome".
Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.
― Carl Sagan, "A Pale Blue Dot", Cosmos