Making Time for What Really Matters

A few years ago, the Washington Post made an arrangement with Joshua Bell, one of the best violinists in the world, to play incognito as a street busker at the Metro subway station L'Enfant Plaza in Washington, D.C., during the morning rush-hour.

What happened?

Asked to predict the outcome if one of the world's great violinists performed incognito before a traveling rush-hour audience of 1,000-odd people, Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, responded: "I don't think that if he's really good, he's going to go unnoticed. He'd get a larger audience in Europe … but, okay, out of 1,000 people, my guess is there might be 35 or 40 who will recognize the quality for what it is. Maybe 75 to 100 will stop and spend some time listening."

And how much will he make?

"About $150."

In fact, out of 1,097 people who passed by, only seven stopped to listen, at least for a short time. (All the children who passed by wanted to stop and listen, but their parents hurried them on.) Excluding $20 given him by a woman who was at a concert of his three weeks earlier, and recognized him, he was given $32.17 over a period of 43 minutes. Most passers-by didn't even slow down.

Read the whole article here.

So, what does that tell us? That we can't recognize greatness? Or perhaps rather, we don't have time for it, time to recognize, appreciate, seek it? I think the latter is more accurate. Americans have a history of pragmatism, and for many of us, urgent practical matters tend to exercise a tyranny over less urgent, less practical, yet intrinsically more worth while goods and activities. (This tendency is growing in Europe, as well.)

Though we recognize at some level the difference between things worth pursuing for their own sake, and things which are practical necessities, but may marginalize it when it comes to making concrete decisions. Ironically, a helpful analysis has come in the framework of ways to be "effective" or "successful", which name, as such,
the attainment of practical goals. Stephen Covey distinguishes four classes of tasks (things we are considering doing): (1) those which are important and urgent; (2) those which are important, but not urgent; (3) those which are urgent but not important; (4) those which are neither urgent nor important.

We are unlikely to neglect the first type (unless we really don't consider them important at all). But very often we prioritize the third type of tasks or duties (those which are urgent, though not important) to the neglect of the second (those which are important, but not urgent). (One basic reason for this is that we naturally place greater priority on urgent things or things close at hand than they objectively deserve according to a reasoned consideration–more on this in another post). Once we draw this tendency to our attention, we can seek a solution. When we take note that urgent activities tend to draw all our attention to themselves, at the expense of important but non-urgent activities, we can, as a consequence, mentally re-evaluate the urgency of these activities: (it's not in itself urgent to read this spiritual book TODAY, to make a retreat THIS MONTH, to find a spiritual director RIGHT AWAY, to write that letter NOW, etc., but if I don't do it now (or in the respective time period) I'm likely to put it off unduly long, so in the long term view it actually IS urgent.)

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)

3 thoughts on “Making Time for What Really Matters”

  1. Thank you for writing this. Just recently I was back from a trip to Europe and very often came across people playing music on subways. I always stopped to listen but there was no one around. I thought most of them were very good, but I didn't understand why no one was listening! A player of music doesn't have to be great, he just has to be average. I mean don't we stop to listen to a tweet of a bird or the chatter of a squirrel? Whats happening to us all I wonder, if we don't do this!

  2. I really like this post Joseph! I notice that despite mentally re-evaluating things to be done it is still sometimes difficult to reorder our activities. One solution is perhaps a heightened awareness of the real value in goods related to the important, but not urgent category – an awareness that inspires imagination and therefore invokes a natural draw. I look forward to your next post on this.

  3. In the opinion of one who neither musically illiterate nor snobbish, this experiment (if the YouTube clip gives a fair sampling of Bell's music choice) indicates nothing about inability to distinguish greatness or about pragmatism.

    Cognoscenti might recognize the piece he is playing in the clip. They might see (or invent) its worth; average people would appreciate some melody and rhythm. Bell has other things in his repertoire which he could performed.

    Perhaps the clip unfairly represents his "concert" but if not, he was lucky that no one threw any rotten tomatoes.

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