Several years back the Washington Post conducted an experiment. They wanted to know what would happen if Joshua Bell, one of the world's finest violinists, playing one of the best violins ever crafted, was to perform 10 of the most elegant pieces of music ever written. But dressed as an ordinary street musician in one of the most mundane places: a subway station in Washington, D.C. during the morning commute. The question they wanted to explore was, in a banal setting, at an inconvenient time, would beauty, would genius transcend? Is there something deeply rooted in the human soul that can rise above the blindness that comes with familiarity.
Would a crowd gather? Would people willingly miss their trains, turn off their cell phones, take off their iPods. Would people slow down, be late for work and find themselves inexplicably drawn in to the music? The answer was no.
That Friday morning passed like so many others. A crowd did not gather. They did not miss their trains and did not show up late for work. In fact, 1,070 people passed by and virtually no one noticed -- a scant 7 people paused. For his 45-minute performance, this world renowned violinist made $32 and change. Few people even bothered too look. Something in our goal driven society created an astounding lack of vision. Blindness isn't just an inability to see, but also the inability to edit, to appreciate what we are seeing or to distinguish anything at all. In our frantic rush forward our lives are becoming diminished.
My photographer friend Tony lead me to the Washington Post story because it related to a book project that was consuming him. He had been reflecting on the nature of sight and shadows after spending a year teaching blind students the art of photography.
While looking over the photos my friend found himself compelled not only by what his blind students had created but what it had to say about our own lack of vision. He asked one student, "How do you not cut off people's head's in your photos?" The student replied, I just ask people where they are. These blind students had learned what we need to learn, how to see deeply by listening closely to our world.
The Talmudic word for blindness is sagi nahor. The literal translation is not blindness, but great light. It is as if the rabbis are saying that people become blinded by seeing too much. Or too much of the same thing. The people in the Washington subway couldn't see or hear the violinist because they have walked those steps so many times that they lost the ability to encounter anything unexpected.
Is there a way for us to keep our souls from becoming calcified -- to remove the cataracts? Remove the beliefs that we have built up and fortified with our reason, our emotion or our pain. Can we regain our vision, our ability to distinguish?
We see what we expect to see. We hear what we want to hear. And we do it with all the instinctiveness of breathing. We do not expect to see a world class musician on the side of the road so we don't see him even if he is there. We don't expect our roommates or our spouses to wash the dishes so we don't notice when the sink is empty. We are so used to being criticized that we cannot hear a true compliment. We only see the same old parent tyrannically hurling the same old silences and aggression so we are blind to the sadness, loneliness or fear that have crept in over the years.
Our lives would be transformed if we could let go of what we expect to find before we begin the search. If we could wait for the question before settling on the answer. Like Hagar when she was cast out by Abraham, if we could lift up our eyes, we might begin to see a pool of water instead of a desert before us. Or like Abraham stopped by the angel, we might be able to see something other than our families to sacrifice. We might truly begin to experience the people before us, and the world before us anew.
We don't need thunderous applause, but we do know the comfort when even one person understands us. And we know the vulnerability of being made invisible. I once had a conversation with a homeless man in a shelter. He didn't start out homeless. In an earlier life he had a successful career in government, but alcohol got the best of him. He explained to me that the hardest part about life on the street was constantly being stepped over, forgotten, ignored. We diminish the humanity of others by not seeing them, and we diminish our own by letting it happen.
The cure for our blindness, the thing that will remove the cataracts from our souls, is if we direct our hearts to the face of the other before us. If we seek their humanity and stop hiding from our own. We cannot distill our lives to a play-list -- no matter how good it may be. Our Facebook profiles will never contain our essence. Facebook will never allow you to comfort a friend. It will never show your true face. Your Blackberry, iPhone or laptop cannot replace a conversation. And except for possibly the iPhone, it will not help you see beauty or genius.
Turn them off. Put them away. Lift up your eyes and you will see. Listen and you may hear. Direct your hearts. Pay attention. The people who see the deepest know how to look. The people who know how to hear, have learned how to listen. Im shemohah, tishmah -- if you listen you will hear. "If you listen to what is old, you will hear what is new." The struggle is to let go of our distortions, whether caused by fear or distraction, and seek a higher illumination -- to see beyond sight. See the face of the other.
And that is what we need to commit and recommit to again. And again. We have to look close enough. We need to not only listen but also strive to hear. We need to really see. Not what we expect to see, but what is really before us. Who is really before us. And then we might discover in our closest relationships something fresh and unexpected. Something completely new or recover something very old or forgotten.
We have to keep looking and searching and exploring and seeking until we arrive where we began and see the place, see their faces for the first time. Our relationships, our lives, our very souls depend upon it. And then if we look a bit closer, and closer still, in the sound and the silence, in the white fire and the black fire, at what has always been before us. We might begin to see, shimmering there, the fine threads binding our lives, and our souls together.