Thursday, May 19, 2011

If we don't have time for beauty, do we really live?

Marcel LeJeune recently reflected on a social experiment conducted by the Washington Post a few years ago. Joshua Bell, a world-renowned violinist, took his $3.5 million violin and played for 43 minutes at a busy Metro stop in Washington, DC, during the morning rush hour. During that time, 1,097 people passed by. Only seven people stopped to listen.

The rather lengthy article chronicling the experiment was fascinating, yet almost painful to read. Here is a man who is considered extraordinarily talented – even “genius” in his musical abilities, and yet people were too busy to take notice. People were too busy to take a moment to appreciate the beauty. People were too busy to reflect for a moment, to disengage from their morning monotony.

Perhaps the article was all the more painful for me to read because I lived in Washington, DC, for two years. I passed by many street musicians in the hurried world of the Metro. Many times they made me smile, but did they ever know that I appreciated what they were giving?

I do recall one Sunday morning in particular. I was sitting outside on a beautiful day, sipping my Starbucks and reading theology, when a young man and woman began playing and singing feet away from me. It was beautiful. I remember being struck by their talent and by the gift of hearing music that I hadn’t requested or turned on with my iPod – a gratuitous soundtrack as I labored with von Balthasar or de Lubac or Aristotle or whoever I was attempting to understand at the moment. And I remember debating with myself whether or not to give them money. It was so beautiful, and it was so appreciated, that I wanted to say, “Thank you,” and a small tip was all I really knew how to do. I can’t remember if I ever worked up the courage to place a few dollars in the violin case (though I think that I eventually did).

But all of this circled through my mind as I read about busy commuters of the District, who were set on the agenda of their day with no room for rest, reflection or receiving beauty.

Somewhere in the midst of reading, I considered how much different it would be for a child to encounter Joshua Bell. I thought of how children would stop and appreciate and just be, without the pressure of the day, without worrying about getting to work late, without fighting through the crowds, pushing anyone who dared not walk briskly on the left side of the escalator.

And then I read this:

A couple of minutes into it, something revealing happens. A woman and her preschooler emerge from the escalator. The woman is walking briskly and, therefore, so is the child. She's got his hand.

"I had a time crunch," recalls Sheron Parker, an IT director for a federal agency. "I had an 8:30 training class, and first I had to rush Evvie off to his teacher, then rush back to work, then to the training facility in the basement."
Evvie is her son, Evan. Evan is 3.

You can see Evan clearly on the video. He's the cute black kid in the parka who keeps twisting around to look at Joshua Bell, as he is being propelled toward the door.

"There was a musician," Parker says, "and my son was intrigued. He wanted to pull over and listen, but I was rushed for time."
So Parker does what she has to do. She deftly moves her body between Evan's and Bell's, cutting off her son's line of sight. As they exit the arcade, Evan can still be seen craning to look. When Parker is told what she walked out on, she laughs.
"Evan is very smart!"

The poet Billy Collins once laughingly observed that all babies are born with a knowledge of poetry, because the lub-dub of the mother's heart is in iambic meter. Then, Collins said, life slowly starts to choke the poetry out of us. It may be true with music, too.

There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money, from that vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding. Whites, blacks and Asians, young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups. But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.

So, it would seem that childhood and beauty go hand in hand. Children are so much more perceptive of the beautiful, appreciative of the beautiful and willing to take a few moments to truly enjoy the beautiful. Adults are too busy, too jaded, too preoccupied. How do we think we have reached maturity and understanding when we fail to truly live in the world around us?

Then there was this dramatic irony:

And then there was Calvin Myint. Myint works for the General Services Administration. He got to the top of the escalator, turned right and headed out a door to the street. A few hours later, he had no memory that there had been a musician anywhere in sight.

"Where was he, in relation to me?"

"About four feet away."


There's nothing wrong with Myint's hearing. He had buds in his ear. He was listening to his iPod.

For many of us, the explosion in technology has perversely limited, not expanded, our exposure to new experiences. Increasingly, we get our news from sources that think as we already do. And with iPods, we hear what we already know; we program our own playlists.

The song that Calvin Myint was listening to was "Just Like Heaven," by the British rock band The Cure. It's a terrific song, actually. The meaning is a little opaque, and the Web is filled with earnest efforts to deconstruct it. Many are far-fetched, but some are right on point: It's about a tragic emotional disconnect. A man has found the woman of his dreams but can't express the depth of his feeling for her until she's gone. It's about failing to see the beauty of what's plainly in front of your eyes.

What kind of world do we create for ourselves, instead of enjoying the one we have been given? How different would our lives be if we cultivated an awareness of beauty?

As I reflected back in January, how different would our world be if we took the time to savor the beauty that has been given to us and allowed it to transform our culture?

I think the reason the article from the Washington Post was most unsettling was that it presented me with an unanswerable question: What would I have done if I walked by the Metro when Joshua Bell was playing? Do I perceive and appreciate unexpected beauty, or do I merely write about it?

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