In his widely-discredited book The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich wrote about a time when he was in Delhi, India:
The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people.
Having spent five days at Disneyland last week, I can understand how Ehrlich might have freaked out by the pressing of large crowds. Anyone who is bothered by crowds should avoid any popular amusement park in the summer months. But how many people are “too many?” We were part of a group of 12 family members, and at no time did that number feel like “People, people, people, people.” During our visit, I entered a small hotel room to see seven people watching TV, playing on the computer, and primping at the mirror. It was obvious that nobody was freaking out about being in such close quarters. I also remember a time in high school when about 20 of us gathered in a small room in the home of a friend. Her father peeked his head into the room and saw us sitting cheek by jowl, and he mentioned a Greek phrase from where he grew up: “When there is love, there is room.”
The problem with population critics is that their primary theory seems to be not that there are too many people, but too many of the wrong kinds of people. In other words, there are too many of Them, and not enough of Us. And as long as the “people, people, people” of the world are classified as “Them,” then there will always be too many. As one of the adults in our group at Disneyland, there were times when I lagged behind as a sweeper to help keep the kids together. It didn’t matter to me that there were 11 people in line in front of me because they were part of “Us” and not “Them.”
And it usually doesn’t take much to change a “Them” into an “Us.” Mainly it just takes reaching out and talking to people. This changes them from anonymous faces in the crowd taking up room in line to people I don’t mind standing next to. There were lots of rowdy teenagers running around the park, and it was pretty easy to lump them into a blob of rambunctious kids. But one time we started up a conversation with a family, including an older teenager and his little five-year-old brother. They became real people to us, and we had fun chatting with them as we waited in line at the roller coaster.
We probably went through the Haunted Mansion seven or eight times on this particular trip. At the beginning of this attraction, large crowds are twice packed into relatively small rooms. It was easy to get annoyed at the people, particularly at those who screamed loudly just for the heck of it. But once a girl was visibly anxious in the waiting room, since it was her first time through the ride. Little Miss V reached out and held her hand, reassuring her that it was not all that scary, and that she had been on it lots of times. When the ride was over, V wanted to see “her new friend” and tell her, “See? Wasn’t that fun?”
While riding the train around the park, V talked to the two kids in the family in front of us and compared notes about what was and wasn’t fun at the park. They agreed that the Indiana Jones ride was the most fun, and that the Tower of Terror was too terrifying. This simple conversation was sufficient to change them into “Us,” and later that day I recognized them when I ran across them outside of Sleeping Beauty’s castle.
If I could have waved my magic wand ($6 at the Princess Shop) and removed all the strangers from the park, I probably would have. But I would have just as happily waved the wand to bring all my family and friends into the park. Any population critic who says that there are too many people is basically claiming that there are too many of “Them” in the world — too many people visiting, arguing, and screaming. What this world needs is more of “Us” and fewer of “Them.”
And all it takes to make someone one of “Us” is to reach out to that person — to see the person as a worthwhile individual, rather than just a faceless blur in the crowd.