In Family Support

The miracles of human cooperation go unnoticed.

by Barry Brownstein
August 8

Sometimes we do something foolish, and it works out. When our twins were a few months old, we took them to a North Country Chamber Players concert.

For 45 years, the North Country Chamber Players have been in summer residence in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. The founders, musicians from the internationally famous Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, have grown old together. They have been joined by new generations of musicians, some from the innovative A Far Cry chamber orchestra.

A highlight of our summers has been hearing them play. Many summers ago, with our twins in their baby car seats, we checked in at the ticket desk. The concert was held in a ski lodge; we sat in the very back, planning a hasty exit at the first whimper.

There were no whimpers, and the babies were not sleeping. At intermission, a guest violinist from the Tokyo String Quartet headed straight for us. Were we about to get scolded? Hardly, the violinist graciously told us that our daughter was the most attentive member of the audience. He said her eyes tracked and never left the players.

Over the decades, I have learned from my children about the power of attention and Presence, qualities many of us seem to lack as adults.

In 2007, in an experiment documented by the Washington Post, one of the great violinists of our time, Joshua Bell, wearing jeans, a tee shirt, and a baseball cap, stood at the entrance of L’Enfant Plaza subway stop in Washington, D.C. playing a Stradivarius violin worth $3.5 million.

Among the music Bell played was the “Chaconne” from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor, which is—without exaggeration—among the most sublime and moving music ever written. That piece was followed by Schubert’s achingly beautiful “Ave Maria.”

What is extraordinary about this story is that of the 1097 people who walked by during Bell’s 43-minute performance, only seven stopped to listen. It was six minutes into the performance until the first person did. If you watch the video of his performance, you can see that most people seemed not to notice he was there.

After each piece, Bell was ignored: “The music stops. The same people who hadn’t noticed him playing don’t notice that he has finished. No applause, no acknowledgment.”

Our culture is full of clichés about being more alive and present. Live life to the fullest! Wake up and smell the roses! Yet, we often remain unaware, living proof that exhortations rarely change behavior.

What, then, would change our behavior? What would bring our attention to the present? All that is required is to become aware of what is getting in our way.

Consider the D.C. subway commuters as they woke in the morning on the day of Bell’s performance. Like us, they probably did not notice how quickly their mind activity absorbed their attention. They probably didn’t see themselves instantly checking in to their physical and psychological ailments. Back pain? Still there. Afternoon meeting to worry about? Still there. Problematic financial situation? Still there. Good! All systems go. In other words—and for all of us—our problems are bound up with our self-concept.

Before getting out of bed, anxiety about the day may begin to mount. Our mind then goes into action, scans the world, constructs imaginary scenarios, and comes up with external causes that relieve us of responsibility.

If the commuters were like most of us, they were too distracted by their mind’s activity to notice the extraordinary music they were about to encounter. If their smartwatch measured Presence, they would be getting a red alert.

I Go Down to the Shore

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall —
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

—Mary Oliver

The Washington Post reporter Gene Weingarten, who covered this Bell story, asked a powerful question: their “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?”

What else are we missing? can be answered in many ways. Not often do we notice the miracles of human cooperation that make our daily life possible. Rarely do we wonder how things work. Until our expectations are not met, we take for granted the supply chain that keeps our stores stocked and the work of individuals worldwide whose labor goes into the products we consume. We complain and return to complacency as soon as the power comes back on or our favorite product is back in stock.

We are missing gratitude for how little we give relative to how much we get back. By ourselves, we would quickly perish. Relying on our own understanding, we can produce little. Even a tribe of like-minded individuals on their own renders a primitive existence.

We are missing awe and wonder for what F. A. Hayek called “the extended order of human cooperation.” Presence calls forth wonder and creativity; moral courage, goodness, peace, and happiness flow through us.

When we are not present, we are caught up in mind-constructed narratives threaded with misery. What we fail to appreciate and cherish can soon be lost. When humanity stops cooperating, misery will be real and not merely mind-constructed.

Thanks for reading Mindset Shifts—Essays by Barry Brownstein! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.

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