By Jon Berry
I GOT HIGH-FIVED BY GRACE ON FRIDAY. It happened as I was coming down the stairs into Grand Central Station in Manhattan to catch the evening train home. “Don’t race that man down the stairs, Grace,” I heard a voice behind me say. I looked down and to my side and found Grace, a 2-or-so-year-old ragamuffin, giving me a daredevil, just-try-me grin. I looked up at her mom, who gave me a why-not smile, looked down at Grace, and took up pursuit. Grace, of course, won. We traded enthusiastic high-fives before slipping off on our separate paths across the Main Hall.
You never know what you will find when you open your eyes and ears. For three days last week, I tried to do just that, counting “OMJ’s,” Observed Moments of Joy, in my travel to and from work in New York City.
For some time, I’ve been trying to get unstuck on a project I want to start. The OMJ Experiment came together in my mind as a way to get there. It combined two ideas I’ve heard over the years.
The first: “If you don’t have faith, borrow some.” One reason I make the effort to sit spiritually with others – be it in Quaker meeting, 12-step, or another setting – is to immerse myself in the energy of the group. It can be powerfully healing. The so-called “home study program” just isn’t the same. If I can borrow faith from a spiritual group when I’m in deficit, why not from the world?
The second: “If what you’re doing isn’t working, try something new.” A few weeks ago, a friend described how a spiritual mentor sent her to a sporting goods store to buy a “pitch counter” – a small, simple gadget used in baseball to count the number of pitches a pitcher has thrown. Her assignment was to track attitudes and behaviors she was trying to let go of. The device was easy to carry (just slip it into a pocket) and could be clicked surreptitiously, without anyone noticing.
So, with a newly purchased pitch counter, and a pen and scrap paper to keep notes, I ventured into the world to test the notion that, for all the bad things there are (check today’s headlines), the world also presents opportunities to absorb something positive. Here’s what I learned:
There is joy out there. In all, I counted 85 OMJs over three days. Many were small events. But, days later, they’re still in my mind. A woman smiling to herself as she left the subway. A man whistling as he walked down a corridor. Jokes among friends. A boy doing a little dance in Grand Central while holding a parent’s hand. A burly construction worker walking into the 14th Street subway station and breaking into song (“Dah-dah-dah-dah-dah!”), convulsing the guys he was walking with in laughter. There were small acts of kindness, too. A deliveryman pushing a dolly across Ninth Avenue hit a bump, spilling boxes into the street. A businesswoman stopped to offer help. He declined, and quickly restacked his load. As they went their separate ways, a huge smile rippled across his face; the stranger had made his day. It made me wonder how many such moments I miss when I’m in my mental tunnel hurrying from Point A to Point B.
Surprise amplifies joy. So many days, we head into the world hoping that nothing happens. “Please, just a normal day.” We’re so used to expecting the other-shoe-to-drop to be bad, we forget that surprises can be good. Stepping out of the subway at the Times Square station, quite a few commuters were slowed, then stopped, by the sweet sounds of bluegrass music. The Ebony Hillbillies (pictured below), who play the station most Thursday mornings, were swinging into high gear. Buskers are not uncommon in New York. The good ones attract crowds, no matter the time of day; people smile, bounce in time, drop money into the case, and move on. I found a similar scene that lunchtime in the Chelsea Market building passing the “Cajun Cellist” Sean Grissom plucking and bowing Stand by Me. I love Bach’s Cello Suites, but there’s something exciting about hearing a cellist play Ben E. King, the Beatles, or punk, and having obvious fun.
Serendipity is close by. As I focused more on the world around me – by the second day, the experiment felt like a walking meditation – I started noticing people I know. I fell into more conversations. Those encounters usually led to a smile, laugh or poignant detail (e.g. it’s been two weeks and Bozo, the stray cat taken in by a neighbor, still won’t come out from under the bed). And they often produced a useful tidbit – like a recommendation to read a recent Outside magazine article about a kayaking trip gone awry on the Nile (right up my reading alley). But there was also sheer, amazing serendipity. Turning a corner in Grand Central on Day 1, I looked right into the eyes of a friend I hadn’t seen for months. The first words out of both of our mouths: “I was just talking about you!” We caught up on family news, like how much he’s appreciating his two kids (“They are joy machines,” he said); compared notes on his biking and my running; empathized with each other’s injuries and setbacks, and exchanged hugs. I never would have had the conversation if I hadn’t been keeping my eyes open.
OMJs are transformational. Focus on observing joy in the world, and you risk becoming part of that joy. My running into my friend – the surprise “whoa!” greetings, the animated conversation – likely became an OMJ for passers-by. As did the moment on Friday when in the midst of the busy evening commute, a middle-aged man was seen gently racing a toddler down the steps of Grand Central, then trading high-fives with her at the foot of the stairs – leaving that man – me – smiling, a touch exhilarated, ready to move on with life, and feeling, right, moved by Grace. And grace.
Exercise: Finding OMJs. Get a pitch counter. Or just keep count on paper. Grab a pen and some notepaper. Open the door and head outside. Look for patterns in what you see. What produced joy in you?
Social networking is making serendipity a hot topic in business. "In Search of Serendipity," an essay in The Economist, prompted by the business book The Power of Pull, says “managing serendipity” is increasingly seen as a key to success. “By mingling with…many strangers,” the article says, a smart businessperson “bumps into people who can give him valuable information.” Rather than discouraging employees from social networking on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter, employers should encourage workers to nurture their online and offline networks; “your friends’ friends may have knowledge or skills you need.”
For more on the Ebony Hillbillies, visit their website, Google their videos, or, better yet, listen to a terrific interview with their violinist nonpareil Henrique Prince in the New York Times’ “1 in 8 million” portrait series (click here). Best, stop by and listen the next time you’re in NY.
For more on Sean Griffin, visit his website or Google his videos. This collection includes a clip of him playing Stand by Me, from a collection of his videos.
You should be able to buy a pitch counter at your local sporting goods store; Amazon also stocks them. They’re pretty cheap. Mine cost under $10.
Last note: One evening during the experiment, leaving work, I saw Jerry Seinfeld walking through Chelsea Market. But I didn’t count it as an OMJ because he was engaged in what looked like a very serious business conversation, and, other than me, nobody seemed to notice him. Or maybe they were just being very cool about it.