Three years ago, on Friday January 12th 2007, the Washington Post conducted a social experiment: World famous violin virtuoso Joshua Bell spent 45 minutes on a Washington Metro platform during the morning commute playing six intricate Bach compositions on a $3.5 million violin. By the time he was finished, a total of six people had stopped to listen and he had earned a whopping $32 from the few passers-by who were moved enough to toss some coins into his case. *
What can we conclude from this? Are people simply too busy to stop and smell the flowers? What would have happened if there had been a banner on the wall behind him with his name and resume? I’ll bet there would have been a crowd of people, and that quite a few would have even been willing to miss a train or two to catch the performance. After all, if a nation that averages four hours of TV watching per person per day proves anything, it’s that people make time for what’s important to them.
Now let’s rewind another 3500 years to the year 1314 BCE, when a guy named Moses crosses paths with a burning bush during the morning commute to his shepherding job in the Midianite desert. Unlike our contemporary commuters, Moses does choose to turn aside and investigate. Of course we all know the rest of the story, but what’s curious is why a narrative that reveals so little about Moses’ leadership credentials pays so much attention to this seemingly insignificant detail.
“Moses thought, ‘I will turn aside now and look at this great sight – why will the bush not be burned? G-d saw that he turned aside to see; and G-d called out to him from amid the bush …”
To my thinking, this detail is actually far from insignificant. In fact, I believe that the Torah is pointing to one of Moses’ greatest qualities: Moses greatness was not that he was willing to slow down and notice his surroundings (in case you didn’t know, shepherds are not famous for their hectic lifestyle). Moses’ greatness lay in the fact that he was willing to turn aside from his path – from what he already knew about life – to investigate something he didn’t understand. This is what qualifies Moses to be a leader, and this is what affords him the creativity and receptivity to become the greatest prophet of all time.
So many of us miss so much of the potential and possibility within our lives because we’re too busy hurtling down our path towards the things that we consider to be important. In fact, most of us are so immersed in what we think we “know” that we barely even notice the things that don’t fit into our preconceived paradigm, and when we do, we’re often far too uncomfortable in the realm of the unknown to seriously entertain it as a viable option.
There are two major problems with our discomfort with the unknown: The first is that we miss so many opportunities to discover new things. Take for example the way most people listen. Rather than listening with an open and quiet mind, they “actively” analyze everything they hear to determine if it makes sense. People who practice this “critical” style of listening usually consider it to be a virtue, but the truth is that their practice of filtering what they don’t understand virtually guarantees that they will have little to no chance of hearing anything new.
The second problem is that so much of what we think we know is either incomplete, distorted, or flat out wrong. This in and of itself isn’t necessarily a problem since human beings by their very nature have a limited understanding of themselves and their world. The problem arises when we begin to have too much respect for what we think we know. In fact, if there’s one thing my experience as a counselor has taught me, it’s how often this tendency to over-trust our thinking and perception wreaks havoc in people’s lives, which is why I so often say that there’s nothing that scares me more about people than what they’re sure of. You can bet the house on it – It’s always what lands them in the most trouble. In fact, when my clients tell me that they don’t understand what I’m talking about, they’re often surprised when I tell them that that’s a good thing.
When I already know how to get to my destination, I tend to look straight ahead and press the pedal to the metal. But when I’m not so sure, I tend to drive slowly as I look from side to side and examine the signposts and side streets to determine the right direction. This is true of our journey through life as well. When we begin to get a real sense of the limits of our understanding, we begin to see that not knowing the way isn’t really such a bad thing after all. Then, instead of rushing along towards our predetermined destination, we’re far more open to looking down those seemingly superfluous side streets and alleys – even the ones that seem at first to be downright absurd – because it’s precisely in these places that our greatest opportunities for discovery and growth so often lie.
Wishing you the very best,
*For those who are not familiar with the story, check it out here http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/04/AR2007040401721.html