From a talk I gave at Second Unitarian Church of Omaha, summer 2011.


Joshua Bell is, by all accounts, the best American violinist currently performing, and among the top violinists in the world. A very young looking 43 years of age, with a loose mop of dark hair, he is very demonstrative as he plays, and his whole body flows with the motion as he moves his bow rhythmically and lovingly across his violin. Oh, and his violin happens to be an original Stradivarius, dating back to 1721. It has never been refinished, as Bell is concerned that adding a protective layer of lacquer may change the quality of the music he generates with it. When he performs, his supreme talent, combined with the ageless, eternal perfection of his violin, create one of the few truly transcendent experiences we may hope to experience in this day and age.

In 2007, the Washington Post decided to do an interesting social experiment. Joshua Bell, and his Stradivari, would perform as a street musician for one hour at L’Enfant Plaza in central Washington DC during the morning rush hour. The experiment was to see how many people, in the middle of their rush hour routines and rituals, would be able to recognize, acknowledge, slow down, and maybe stop…. to experience Joshua Bell’s performance.

The family and I completed an East Coast tour back in June. And spent a little time in DC. When I travel, I enjoy taking mass transit of whatever city we’re visiting. One, because it’s usually cheap. But mainly, I like to try to experience the daily existence of the city, to breathe the same air, see the same sights, drink the same coffee, as local residents do. As Walt Whitman says to his fellow travelers in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”;

“Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt;

Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd…”

So when we were in DC, we rode the subway. Now, I was in DC for work, while Laura and the kids did the sightseeing during the day, so I found myself alone riding the subway after my work was done and was on my way to meet them near the Smithsonian. I got off the train at L’Enfant Plaza, my second such time at this stop. L’Enfant is in the middle of the Capital Mall, walking distance to all the sightseeing stops, close enough to most Federal offices and buildings, and the central hub to all 4 major train routes. It’s a busy station, more hyper in my mind than any New York, Chicago or San Francisco public transit stop that I’ve ever had the opportunity to visit. As I rode the train, I thought briefly about Joshua Bell’s performance, but that thought got quickly swallowed up by the more pressing thoughts of which stairway do I need to take, and I hope Laura and the kids haven’t been waiting too long, and I hope my meeting that afternoon with the Department of Transportation went smoothly, and we’re getting back on the road tomorrow to start our drive back to Omaha…suddenly I was outside and walking towards the family rendezvous spot, dialing the phone to tell Laura I am almost there.

In 2007, on January 12th’s cold rush hour morning, Joshua Bell was positioned near the top of an escalator and staircase, near one of the primary exits, a newspaper rack and a shoeshine stand within spitting distance. He was dressed unassumingly in street clothes, open violin case at his feet ready to snap up any change and small bills thrown its way. During his 45-minute performance, almost 1100 people walked past him. He had decided he would not play “singalong” songs, or songs that would get people’s attention because they were immediately recognizable. He played technically challenging music from Bach, Beethoven, and others. Music that he knew was his best musical expression, that maximized his talent, and his instrument’s potential. Leonard Slatkin, conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra, when asked how many commuters would be able to discern the greatness in their midst, had predicted up to 100 people would stop and listen for a short bit, and Joshua Bell would collect $150 in tips in his open violin case.

I’ll pose to you the same question. How many people stopped walking, if even for a few seconds, and focused their time and attention on Joshua Bell?

In total, 7 people stopped and listened for at least one minute. He collected $32.17 in tips.

The obvious take away from this that we, as a society, need to slow down, and stop and smell the proverbial roses once in awhile. That we need to pause, breathe and acknowledge those moments where we are surrounded by the truly breathtaking. And this is all worthy, and true. But this is not the thing that truly stands out to me in this story.

In the Pulitzer prize-winning article from the Washington Post about this social experiment, Joshua Bell was asked about his thoughts on the performance. Joshua’s response;

It was a strange feeling, that people were actually, ah . . .”

“. . . ignoring me.”

“At a music hall, I’ll get upset if someone coughs or if someone’s cellphone goes off. But here, my expectations quickly diminished. I started to appreciate any acknowledgment, even a slight glance up.”

It wasn’t the fact that people weren’t stopping and taking the time to listen for bit. No, Joshua had the distinct impression that people were shutting him out, were making an effort to shut him out.

The major critics of this social experiment say it lacks context. To appreciate art and aesthetics, you need to be in a proper frame of mind for the experience. In the middle of a frigid morning commute in a crowded metro area, you don’t suddenly expect a world-class musical performance. The context of a morning commute is exact fare, and a warm cup of coffee, and checking emails on your phone so you can get a jump on the day, and making sure you grabbed your lunch off the kitchen counter on your way out the door.

I get this, really I do. But what else do we miss if we’re always in context to the moment, to the mindset, we’re in?

Edna Souza runs the shoestand right next to where Joshua Bell performed. In the article, she is quoted as saying;

“Couple of years ago, a homeless guy died right there. He just lay down there and died. The police came, an ambulance came, and no one even stopped to see or slowed down to look. People walk up the escalator, they look straight ahead. Mind your own business, eyes forward. Everyone is stressed.”

What stands out for me in the story is not that people did not acknowledge Joshua Bell’s performance. No, what stands out for me is that they appeared to make the effort to ignore him and shut him out. There was a stubborn willfulness to exclude the experience from their perceptions. An extreme version of tunnel vision.

I have a BA in English, with a focus on late 19th and 20th century poetry. Most of my near 20-year work career has been primarily in Information Systems as a programmer, administrator, and for the past 5 years as a Manager of people, projects and technologies at Union Pacific Railroad. Most of the day, my context is on raw data and cold facts. It’s thinking about the exact method on how a certain technology works. Like how a train schedule gets pushed from a big monolithic computer in downtown Omaha to an employee’s mobile phone in the middle of Wyoming.

When I am in this way of thinking, I have a very narrow context. I do not allow other ways of thinking to enter my mindset, for fear that I may lose my focus. I, too, would probably walk right past Joshua Bell. It’s a challenge to consider poetry.

My internal search for religious meaning is an internal struggle in which emotion and instinct are at odds with intellect and reason. In other words, a struggle between what I feel, and what I know. I feel that there is a God, or at least something greater than me as an individual, at work in the universe. But, I have no empirical evidence to support this.

D.H. Lawrence, one of my strongest literary and religious influences, struggled mightily with emotion in conflict with reason. Lawrence asks his reader to consider the setting sun. When we see it, our first reaction, mainly emotional, is to focus on the image of the setting sun, to feel it’s heat on our skin. We see the sun sink, like a drowning thing on the horizon, to be reborn again the next morning. However, we also know the truth that the sun is in fact stationary in relation to the earth, and it’s the earth’s rotation that causes the sun to appear to move across the sky. Nonetheless, even the greatest scientist, upon witnessing a sunset, still has that first reaction to consider the sun as it sinks below the horizon.

It’s that reaction and response, the picturing of the sun as a young lion diving over the horizon at its prey, with a sense of wonder and awe at the universe. God, is not found in the fact that we know how the earth and sun are in rotational harmony with each other. God is not found in the playful and fantastic vision of the chariot that races across the sky. No, God is found in the unison of the two, to approach the world every day and acknowledge the duality, not let one mode of thought totally suppress the other.

In searching for spirituality in everyday life, I try to, well, turn my mind off. To allow my creative and emotional self have the first chance to react to a situation, before my logical self kicks in. More importantly, always realize that the instinctual response is just as valid as the rational response and to embrace the intersection of both responses.

OK, maybe I’ll rephrase. I don’t literally try to turn my mind off. It’s more about letting go of your thoughts, your rational thinking process, and let yourself be awash in emotions and sensory reactions. Your mind is the most powerful computer in the universe, and if you give it the opportunity, it will shut out everything else. But no matter how hard we try, we cannot simply think ourselves through the day. We’re doomed to slip up, and not meet our own expectations. A favorite quote of mine comes from Unitarian Minister Lisa Ward.

”…life gives us the gift of being more than we can control so that we can find our essential selves within the mix. Striving for perfection won’t get me there, claiming wholeness in the chaos will. We must, in fact, sacrifice perfection for wholeness.”

We must, in fact, sacrifice perfection for wholeness.”

Getting back to Joshua Bell. I’d like to think that the commuters that morning in 2007, even in the midst of the chaos and confusion, were all, well, shut off from the cacophony around them. They definitely didn’t hear music. They probably didn’t hear noise. They didn’t hear anything but their own thoughts. What an isolated way to live.

It’s easy to go to work and keep your head down and turn your thoughts off to all distractions. I suggest, instead, to embrace the distractions. Let your thoughts get cluttered, let the noise wash over you. Take it all in. There is a time and a place for meditation, but there is also a time and place for noise. During meditation time every Sunday morning, I find comfort in listening to the creaking chairs, the coffee percolating, the birds outside, all the noises in the silence. To me, spirituality in everyday life is to let the noise of my fellow people, of the world, of the universe wash over me, to acknowledge and listen to my thoughts, and my emotions. To not try to be perfect in every moment. Instead, embrace being imperfect, and being whole.