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Thursday, April 29, 2010
Stop! (Part 2)
You may have heard about the experiment conducted by the Washington Post a few years ago. It is worth reading the whole story. They placed the world renowned violinist Joshua Bell in a Washington DC Metro stop where he played some of the most intricate pieces of music ever written. During that time approximately one thousand people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. Almost no one stopped to listen. In many instances children wanted to pause, but in every case their parents forced them to move along. After 45 minutes, people had tossed about $20 into his violin case. (Two days before Bell sold out a theater in Boston where the seats cost $100. He was playing on a violin worth $3.5 million dollars.)
If I imagine myself at that metro stop on a typical weekday, I probably wouldn’t have stopped either. I would have noticed that the violinist was better than most street musicians, but it wouldn’t have stopped me in my tracks. The bigger issue would have been time, work and parenting: If I was trying to drop my child off at daycare and get to work on time, listening to music would be a luxury I couldn’t afford.
The Post got it right when they identified some of the questions going through people’s minds as they walked through the station:
Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he's really bad? What if he's really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn't you? What's the moral mathematics of the moment?
There are many interesting angles and questions to this experiment. How important is place and context to our ability to perceive beauty? Why do children seem more able to live in the moment? What does it take to “stop us in our tracks?”
And here are two observations this experiment evoked in me:
1. There is more beauty around us than we realize. It may not take the form of world class music, but every day there is an abundant banquet laid out before us. The gifts are sensory, relational, artistic, colorful and subtle. Sometimes the gifts are even painful. Our willingness to pause will in large measure impact our ability to receive these gifts.
2. There is grace in remembering. Back for a moment to those busy parents, dragging their children along so they can get to work. For people like them (and me), there is grace. There is the potential to reflect back and remember what we missed in the moment. Will it be as powerful as if stopped when it happened? Probably not. But later in the day, or the next morning, the gift is still there for the receiving. Sometimes it is the best we can do.
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