This past Monday, a group of us from the Kittamaqundi Community along with some friends gathered to take another small step on our journey towards “Cultural Proficiency”. It wasn’t really a celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday per se, but it seemed like a good way to honor his life and his legacy. Our leader was the amazing Jen Mansir, a member of our community who has been trained to lead cultural proficiency training through Howard County Public School system.
Jen led us in a thought-provoking exercise around assumptions and stereotyping. Then we shifted gears and talked for a bit about appreciating beauty.
Our conversation was prompted by a video from 2007 that showed the famous violinist Joshua Bell (dressed in a sweatshirt and a baseball hat) playing the first movement of the Bach violin concerto in a Washington D.C. metro station. In the video, everyone rushes past without taking a moment to listen and appreciate the beauty of the music. Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten later wrote about this “social experiment” in a piece entitled “Pearls Before Breakfast”. He asked, “In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”
The video was a good lead-in to a conversation about how our assumptions keep us from perceiving things truth, goodness and beauty. When we perceive someone to be less valuable for whatever reason (their race, their weight, their gender, their accent, their appearance), we will likely miss or dismiss the contributions they might make.
But as our discussion went on, I started to think. Part of the reason why people appreciate Joshua Bell’s music when they hear him perform with a symphony is that they just paid a lot of money for their ticket. They are in a beautiful hall, they hired a babysitter, they got dressed up—all of those things increase the chance they they’ll love what they hear. I’ve seen articles that prove the same thing can happen with wine—people enjoy expensive wine more, but only if they know it is expensive before they drink it.
I wonder. Can we use our tendency to see only what we expect to see as an asset in our attempt to build a world where people can live in peace with each other?
Case in point: I occasionally read my horoscope in the morning newspaper. I don’t actually believe that the position of the stars determines anything at all about my day, but it can be amusing to read, for example, that I will meet someone important to my future that day. A horoscope like that can lead me to go through the day a bit more interested in the random people with whom I cross paths.
I know people who do this as part of a prayer practice. They will say to God, “I really need some encouragement today and I would appreciate it if you would send me one of your angels to deliver a word from you.” When someone says a prayer like that, it changes the way they face their day. Each person they meet might be God’s angel that day. Each conversation they have might contain a word of encouragement from God. When you go into a day like that, the world becomes a much friendlier place.
Or consider the prison chaplain I once met who prayed each morning as he started work, “Lord I know you told your disciples that you are there when they visit someone in prison. Help me to meet you today in the prisoners I will be serving.” A prayer like that can transform your experience of a prison.
It is extremely important for us to come to recognize our biases and to correct them by learning to appreciate the contributions of people who we might have previously dismissed or disregarded. But I also wonder if we can mitigate the affect of our negative biases by creating a practice that increases the chance we’ll perceive the gifts we each have to offer.
Cheryl Stayed has a wonderful quote in her book, “Wild” which is repeated in the movie based on her book. She relays a piece of advice her mother gave her as she was growing up. “There’s a sunrise and a sunset every day. You can choose to be there for it. Put yourself in the way of beauty.”