From classical music to space flight, and how we insist on being amazing
I just got back from seeing an orchestral concert, in a nice grand concert hall down the road from where I work - featuring a Beethoven symphony and Elgar's cello concerto, both of which were most enjoyable. Often in concerts like this I find it interesting to look around at the rest of the audience - especially when seated behind the orchestra, as we sometimes are, since it affords a pretty good view of the whole audience staring back at you.
It's interesting because on stage there are a few tens of musicians, passionately and skilfully doing what they do... and watching and listening are hundreds of people, all sitting in perfect silence, in rapt attention. These are people of all ages and descriptions, who no doubt spend most of their lives rushing around frantically getting things done; but for a few hours, we all sit perfectly contentedly and simply appreciate the art that other people are creating for us.
Try to imagine what an outside observer might think of it all, some alien being with no knowledge of our culture. Here are hundreds of stationary people, the majority of whom are doing nothing but observing the others - it would appear to be a rather odd use of time. In a practical sense, this serves no real purpose: nothing is getting done, no one (in the audience) is progressing any further toward their life goals, this doesn't benefit society in any significant material way, or advance the progress of science.
That's partly what makes it all so beautiful. Here we all are, with a million things to do, but not too busy to go out of our way to appreciate good art, flocking sometimes in our hundreds of thousands to witness the performance of a prestigious artist. Obviously, this applies far wider than just classical music, but the calmness and sense of awe makes the point that much clearer - as opposed to say a rock gig with people more obviously physically enjoying themselves, or a movie where people are being told a compelling story.
However, one could ague that while it's all well and good to sit around admiring each other's intricate skill, and congratulating ourselves for being such a refined and cultured species, there really are important things to be done. While we sit in a concert hall or theatre, hundreds of people will die of preventable causes; millions languish in poverty from which they have little hope of escape; almost a billion people struggle to survive on a tiny fraction of the admission price. Clearly, the expense and effort that go into such displays of musical prowess
could be made to do more worthy works...
But still I find this amazing; I find it inspiring and uplifting. Yes, there are bad things happening, but even so we choose to spend our time creating and appreciating wonderful works of the imagination. We know we could be doing something "more productive" but choose, at least for the moment, not to. Essentially, we don't let our failures get us down, or burden us with guilt, to such an extent that we can't explore the heights of what we can achieve.
This, I think, is one of the most important and progressive sides of human nature. It allows us to move forward, to try new things, to wonder why, explore unknown frontiers - even when the problems we have already remain unsolved. It drives us to stretch our imagination to new challenges - and along the way, we stumble upon solutions we never would have thought of otherwise. We struggle daily on Earth, but still reach for the stars - because we can, because we want to, because we don't know what's there - inadvertently solving other problems along the way. We find new lands. We see more wonder. We prolong life; we create life.
What's wonderful about humans, is that we not only find ingenious ways to solve our problems; but that we will do amazing things in spite of them.