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Hearken to music, in unlikely places

Manic in Manila

I have recently rejoined the idiomatic rat race; and, as I scurry through the oft crowded and dizzying streets of Makati’s CBD – from its busy graffiti art underground tunnels, to its above ground even busier sidewalks – to get to and from work, a few other idioms come to mind:

Dog-eat-dog is the world in which we live, as such, we often find ourselves burning the midnight oil to prove ourselves in the world of professionals. We cross our fingers, as we anxiously await the results of burning the midnight oil, and can only hope for the best turnout.

Then we remember that all work and no play makes Jack (Jill) a dull boy (girl), as we – with a twinge of guilt – promise ourselves to live a balanced life, despite having to make a buck in this dog-eat-dog world.

Yes, these idioms careen through my brain, as I careen through the concrete jungle. I want to have my cake, and eat it, too. I want to make something of myself, professionally, but I also want something beyond that.

At some point in my careening, I am reminded of a social experiment done in Washington, DC in 2007, which helps me put things in proper perspective.

A violin virtuoso plays in vain?

The test was conducted by the Washington Post and involved world-famous violinist, Joshua Bell. The much-lauded violin virtuoso, who was dressed down and sported a baseball cap, played a 45-minute set with a violin worth US$3.5 million at L’Enfant Plaza—an arcade just outside the Metro DC subway station.

It was Jan. 12 at 7:51 a.m., the height of the morning rush hour in the heart of federal Washington D.C. – one of the world’s busiest capital cities.

The experiment was chronicled for the Washington Post by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Gene Weingarten. He reported that over a thousand people (1,097 to be exact) passed by Bell, who played six pieces from acclaimed violin masters (such as Bach and Schubert). Only seven people stopped to listen to him play; among them, a three-year-old boy. Only one person (a woman) recognized him. The longest that someone (a man) stayed to listen was nine minutes. Twenty-seven people, in all, chucked money into the case as they hurried by – the total collection was US$32.

Here’s the clincher: Just three days before the experiment, Bell played at the prestigious Boston Symphony Hall, to a sold-out audience who paid an average of US$100 for “ok” seats (the good seats went for way more than that). Ironically, the people who walked by Bell were perhaps some of the same ones who would readily shell out the greens to catch one of his concerts.

Isn’t it ironic, don’t ‘ya think? A little too ironic. Not exactly an idiom, but it may as well be.

Three-part beings

Why didn’t people stop? Clearly, save for one person, they did not recognize Bell. Still, wasn’t the excellently played music enough to catch their undivided attention? Surely, Bell’s incognito performance must have been nothing short of amazing! Which begs the question, were the people deaf??? Likely not, and while there are certainly a variety of reasons for people’s seeming disinterest, one stands out—priorities. We get caught in a vicious cycle of “adulting,” of life, of work – we work hard so we can acquire; the more we acquire, the more we want; the harder we work.

We feed the flesh and its demands (bigger, better, faster, more!), but we starve – emaciate, even – the soul and spirit within us. The food on which these inner parts thrive—art, beauty, the sublime, good literature, daydreams, relaxation and quite time, meaningful reflection… the like… all tossed aside as fanciful, frivolous, unnecessary in favor of the “more important,” “grown-up” things in life.

Granted, it is easy for most to connect with the physical, as it is what is visible to us. We see and readily perceive outward beauty for instance, and as such, are more inclined to focus on this. In the specific case of Bell and the experiment, the outward beauty and prestige of a US$100 ticket at the Symphony Hall is easily seen as  desirable, compared to listening to some seemingly random starving artist violinist in the subway. Never mind that the talent was one and the same; the violin, priceless.

Our lives have become way too compartmentalized, way too consumed by externals. But an ailing soul and spirit will eventually affect the physical – in sickness, unhappiness, discontent, for example.

There is a vast chasm between happiness and joy; satisfaction and contentment. The latter, more fleeting than the former. The acquisition of new things, for instance, may make you happy and satisfied, but for how long? Feeding your spirit and soul, on the other hand, will provide a more lasting effect which will show up from the inside, out. Cliché and idealistic? Perhaps; but also true.

Focus and balance need to be restored. YES, the world is often dog-eat-dog. And many times, we may have to burn midnight oil to succeed. But there’s so much more to it than that.

Take your hat off to someone and let them know you appreciate them. Start with your family, perhaps. Hugs are always great, and the best thing about them is when you give them, you generally get one back.

Forget about the grass being greener on the other side of the fence. Feeding your soul and spirit, more often than not, makes the grass greener on your own side.

Stop and smell the flowers. Their beauty is sublime. Or stop to have a listen at a violin player in the subway (MRT?). Allow the music to infuse and uplift your soul. And it won’t cost you US$100 either.

The sands of time run swift for us all. And I will – at the risk of idiom-induced nausea – make my last two references: life’s too short for you to spend all your energies chasing after material, physical gain. After all, you can’t take it with you when you’re gone.