Too Busy to Appreciate the Unexpected Gifts of Life

Every once in a while I enjoy simply sitting in a coffee shop, sipping a cafe latte, and watch. There is something soothing about being alone with my thoughts amidst the bustle of life flowing past in a constant stream. Yesterday, something interesting happened. Right at the main entrance of the shopping mall a piano and three rows of chairs were set up. At about 1pm two sylphlike young women, dressed in concert black, approached. One gently held a violin, while the other one gracefully took her place behind the piano. As wintery, melancholic music drifted towards me, I noticed that most shoppers did not seem to notice – they simply scurried along in different directions.

Their most appreciative audience came from the coffee shop where I was sitting, in the form of an elderly gentleman who startled them with a short burst of applause. The shy smile from the violinist spoke of gratitude at this unexpected gift of appreciation. Now and again a shopper slowed down or a child would dawdle before being hurried along by a parent, but it was only towards the end of their 40 minute performance that two elderly gentlemen sat down to listen. They were quickly followed by two elderly couples who seemed enthralled with the unexpected gift of music, and stayed till the end.

It reminded me of an experiment the Washington Post conducted a couple of years ago in which they asked: “In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?” The musician they chose was internationally acclaimed violin virtuoso Joshua Bell. A one time child prodigy he, only three days before the experiment, played to a sold-out audience at the Boston Symphony Hall where the good seats sold for $100. An Interview magazine article perhaps best sums up his playing as, “it does nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live.” The violin he always plays and played on this day was handcrafted in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari, and was bought for a reported $3.5 million. The venue that was chosen was the L’Enfant Plaza metro station in Washington DC on a Friday morning just before 8 am amidst the morning rush hour. He played six classical pieces for 43 minutes, while 1097 people passed by. The results were shocking and can best be summed up in what Bell said of his experience: “It was a strange feeling that people were actually, ah . . . ignoring me.” Only a handful of people paused or indicated that they noticed him being there.

It makes me wonder why we are often so busy that we seem to neglect to appreciate life: not life as we plan it, but life in those moments of beauty or bliss we unexpectedly stumble upon; often in the most unlikely places.

*          *          *

Read the Washington Post article on their social experiment with Joshua Bell here.

Watch video footage of the experiment here.

Listen to Joshua Bell play:

Bach’s Chaconne

Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria

Manuel Ponce’s Estrellita

Buy Gene Weingarten’s book The Fiddler in the Subway which contains this story and many others he has written.

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