The Writings On The Wall

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On a cold January morning back in 2007, a street-musician stood outside L’Enfant Plaza metro station in Washington, D.C. and played on his violin for about 45 minutes. During that time, nearly a thousand people must have passed through that station – most of them on their daily commute.

The violinist received his first dollar after few minutes from a woman who threw the money in the till, and without stopping, continued to walk.

The musician played continuously. Few people stopped and listened. Fewer gave away money (7 to be precise) but continued to walk at their normal pace. The musician collected a total of $32.17 that day.

When he finished playing, silence took over. No one noticed. No one applauded. There was no recognition whatsoever.

No one knew this at the time, but the violinist was Joshua Bell – one of the world’s finest classical musicians. He performed six classical pieces (two of which were by Bach) on his handcrafted 1713 Stradivarius violin (worth $3.5 million). Three days earlier, Bell had played to a full house at Boston’s Symphony Hall, where fairly good seats went for $100.

This scene was a part of a social experiment conducted by The Washington Post to better understand perception, taste and people’s priorities. Gene Weingarten won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for feature-writing the article that was published on The Post later that year regarding this experiment.

This experiment raises several questions:

  • In a common-place environment, at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty?
  • If so, do we stop to appreciate it?
  • Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?

One of the many possible conclusion from this experiment could be this: if we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made . . . How many other things are we missing on, on daily basis, as we rush through life?

The demands and distractions of our fast-paced workaday world can indeed stand in the way of appreciating truth and beauty and other contemplative delights when we encounter them.

We mistakenly believe that life lies in the big events, so we focus on them, when life really is in the details. The little things. The simple pleasures. The things we encounter on daily basis and take for granted. 

As a starting point, I won’t be drawing any big conclusions from this experiment. Instead, every day, I will try and focus on some mindless routine task that I do all the time and try to find a little bit more pleasure in it, or at least try to do it in a different way.

“Most men pursue pleasure with such breathless haste that they hurry past it.” – Soren Kierkegaard. 

Don’t be most men.

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