07 May 2016

There’s life and love to be lost by living and loving

There’s a story that’s been doing the email rounds for quite some time now about a violinist at a Metro Station in Washington DC. He had played, we are told, 6 Bach pieces over a period of about 45 minutes. During this time some 2,000 people had passed through the station. Only six had stopped to listen. About 20 had given money but didn’t pause at all. The man collected US $ 32.

Apparently the man was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians of the world. He had played, we are told, one of the most intricate pieces every composed and with a violin worth US$ 3.5 million. Two days before, the email asserted, Bell had performed to a full house in Boston where people paid $100 to listen to him play the same music.

This was supposed to be part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people’s priorities.

The experience raises the following question: do we or can be perceive beauty in a common place environment, at an ‘inappropriate’ hour? Can ‘beauty’ and ‘talent’ transcend the ‘limitations’ of context? Can we not be moved to appreciate things in non-expected settings?

It boils down to being conditioned, I think. We are conditioned to think of people not as individuals like ourselves, prone to craziness, worried about a hundred and one things, moving from one anxiety to the next, but in terms of label and attributes associated with category. We see someone in a particular kind of attire or in a particular place and rush to assumption. Don’t we? I do. How about you?

I actually get a kick out of it. About seven years ago, my wife worked in an organization where those at her level in the management were given the vehicle with fuel for a weekend (with or without driver). Stressed managers/executives could take a break this way without worrying about costs or at least that’s what I think was the logic. Anyway, the vehicle had the organization’s logo on it. I was driving. The time was around 7.30 pm. The place: Kurunegala.

I was asked to pull over by two policemen on a motorcycle. I rolled down the glass and one of the policemen screamed at me. First he faulted me for not stopping the moment he started tooting his horn. Then he told me the reason: there was a flat tyre. I put my head out and looked at the tyre and acknowledged. I thanked him for alerting me. It was not enough.

‘Poleesiyen navaththanakota bahinna oni kiyala danne nedda (Don’t you know you have to get off the vehicle when you are stopped by the Police)?’ he chided me, then turning to my wife, who was in the passenger seat, he clarified (for the benefit of the lady whose ‘driver’ had been so out-of-order): ‘miss balannako....meya bahinnevath nehe...meyaata kiyanna bahinna kiyala’ (Look at him Madam...he hasn’t got off the vehicle...please tell him to do so). I quickly got off and acted the role of ‘humble and suitably chastened chauffeur’.

It has happened many times. My friends dress well and I don’t (at least a lot of people think I don’t). I drive a friend who is wearing a neatly pressed shirt and tie to a Government office and the security people would come over and tell him not to worry because ‘he’ (meaning me) will be there and so the car can be parked anywhere.

You have to look the part. That’s what all these things show. One day I went to a Ministry to get some information. Again, I was not looking like a researcher (If ‘researchers’ have some kind of appropriate ‘look’ that is).

I was hassled. I was told later that I should have spoken in English. We would have saved about 15 minutes had I done that, but we would have also made it that much harder for the next researcher who comes along if he/she wasn’t fluent in English.

The point, to me, is that people are not seen as people; they are seen as (or in terms of ) frills: their attire, whether or not they wear a tie, whether they smell nice, what kind of vehicle they arrive in, whether their shoes are polished, whether (indeed) they are wearing shoes, who accompany them. I can’t do a Joshua Bell. I am sure many could though. That’s not the point.

Some of this is permissible. People are people and are judgmental. They pick up signs and labels over their lives and consciously or unconsciously scan whatever they encounter and pin on it some tag thought to be appropriate. On the other hand, part of it is snobbery (or servility), a product not of gaze-object but self-image. What results is privileging and under-privileging as opposed to doing the right thing at the right time for the right person because that’s what the rule book says.

One’s curriculum vitae has a way of coming behind like a shadow. We need to be patient. Someday, someone who didn’t want to listen to Joshua Bell would realize what he/she had missed. The next day he/she will not rush (to judgment). It pays to take things slow. Earth-shattering things will not happen, the revolution will not get derailed and the greatest love on earth will not choose not to happen if we are off by a few seconds or minutes.

There is a saying: even if he stubs his toe on a gem a blind man will not stoop down and pick it up. The Joshua Bell anecdote reminds us that we are all blind. Or deaf. Or in other ways incapacitated. It is good to reflect on our disabilities now and then. It is good to acknowledge that there’s a lot of life we lose by ‘living’.

And of course a lot of love we lose by ‘loving’, how could I forget this? 

This article was published in the Daily News on May 6, 2010.  Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com.  Twitter: malindasene.



Anonymous said...

This is the value system we are in. Attire ,language comes first.So odd one naturally out.

දේශක යා said...

yep. We are Small particles, until they see... Good article as usual.. Thanks

Anonymous said...

'lots of life we lose by living .Lots of love we lose by loving' .Lots and lots of realization by losing both.