When was the last time you were surprised by beauty? “What is this life if, full of care,/We have no time to stand and stare.” wrote the English poet, William Henry Davis. Indeed, most of us would say that we are “busy” in response to the common greeting “how are you?” Are we too busy to be surprised by beauty, to find beauty in unexpected places?
In 2007, Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post conducted a little social experiment. He convinced world-renowned violinist, Joshua Bell, to perform incognito in an arcade just outside a busy Washington, DC, Metro station during the morning rush hour. As he played classical pieces of immense difficulty over the next 43 minutes, how many people would you guess stopped? Twenty? Thirty? Would it surprise you to know that only seven…SEVEN…people stopped and took notice? 27 people tossed in their spare change to a whopping total of $32 and some odd cents. For the same musician who earlier that week played to a sold out crowd in Boston where the cheapest tickets were $100. I would encourage you to read the whole article, it is fascinating, in a macabre sort of way.
In the end, Weingarten leaves us with an unsettling question:
In his 2003 book, Timeless Beauty: In the Arts and Everyday Life, British author John Lane writes about the loss of the appreciation for beauty in the modern world. The experiment at L’Enfant Plaza may be symptomatic of that, he said — not because people didn’t have the capacity to understand beauty, but because it was irrelevant to them.
“This is about having the wrong priorities,” Lane said.
If we can’t take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and listen to one of the best musicians on Earth play some of the best music ever written; if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf and blind to something like that — then what else are we missing? (emphasis mine)
What else indeed! Are we too busy, too distracted, too focused on our phones and our ear buds to be surprised by beauty?
I have learned much from Laura in regards to seeing beauty in places I might otherwise tend to overlook. When I buy groceries, they get loaded into the fridge and happily eaten by my family. Occasionally, a pepper or a tomato or some fruit gets caught behind another item and “missed” until it’s gone a bit past it’s prime. I then utter some words of revulsion and throw the item away.
My child sees a field of magical flowers just waiting to be blown and scattered to the wind. Perhaps fairies ride on the little seed pods awaiting journeys unknown. I see a mass of weeds being spread to my disgruntled neighbors.
Can we stop long enough to be surprised by beauty? Can we put the phone down, turn off the music and the television? Will we seek out the beauty in places where it isn’t expected? Artist Thomas W Schaller, after spending years bemoaning the crisscross of electric wires across his Los Angeles home neighborhood finally remarked, “…at last, I began to see them not as just an inevitable plague, but also as vessels, capable of transmitting their own kind of expected beauty, as they carve and divide the planes of sky in constantly surprising , abstract, and unexpected ways.”
Next time you hear music in the subway or see “weeds” growing in your yard or find something less than pleasant in your refrigerator, can you see with new eyes?
I leave you with Davies’s poem in its entirety. Let’s together commit to not make this a “poor life”, but to take time to “stand and stare.” Are you with me?
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this is if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.