We have been back in New Haven for a week. Since our return the air has been hot, humid, and unhealthy. The direct comparison forced upon me by spending two weeks in Montana and then returning straight to New Haven in a heat wave has been unavoidable. On many dimensions, Montana has it all over New Haven.
Don’t get me wrong--after five years here, our life has become pretty good. We know people, we have friends, we can walk to most of the important places in our day. But I find that in this first week back I have been focusing on the negatives far more than the positives of life in New Haven. The traffic in New Haven is god-awful and many residents think the laws in place to govern the operation of a motor vehicle are really only suggestions that they are free to ignore. There is a lot of litter everywhere. People in New Haven drop trash all the time. I have even seen police officers dropping trash out of the windows of their patrol cars. There are frequent Air Quality Alerts that make it clear that simply breathing is doing harm to your lungs. Petty crime is rampant. We have had two bicycles stolen from our back yard and Yale sends out frequent e-mail warnings to employees about muggings on local streets.
I don’t necessarily want to be fixated on the things I don’t like about life in Connecticut, so I have been trying to come up with ways to raise my mind up out of its rut and force it into a new track. This morning while running I think I may have hit upon something that might work. It certainly won’t make me magically fall in love with New Haven, but it might get my mind to focus on healthy and positive things instead of my laundry list of things to complain about.
I took the early shift today for my run since it promised to be another hot day and Erica had a seven o’clock run scheduled with some co-workers. I needed to be back by home by 6:30. As a result, the sun was very low in the eastern sky as I crested East Rock. There was a thick band of clouds low on the horizon and their undersides glowed a fiery pink and orange as the rays of the sun shone up at them. A seagull flew over my head and its pure white underside turned the same fiery pinkish-orange color as it flew out of shadow and into the odd, luminous morning light
It was really beautiful. And it surprised me that I saw something that beautiful while running in New Haven. It made me think. On the spot and on the fly I decided to try to find two beautiful things each morning this summer. I have read some of the research that shows that happiness can be learned. Happiness and contentment depend, in no small measure, on where you decide to focus your attention. To a degree, if you look for crap, you find crap. So I am hoping that if you look for beauty, you’ll find beauty.
When I thought about it, I had already seen the other beautiful thing this morning. The clouds had been spectacular before I even saw the seagull. This left me two miles in which to think about just how this “Beautiful Things” challenge might work and to set some ground rules for myself. I have decided that the things I find don’t have to be found in the morning—it can be any time of day. It is really my underlying approach to things that may or may not change my appreciation of New Haven, not whether I find beautiful things in the morning or later in the day.
I have also decided that I don’t need to find two beautiful things each day. Instead, I need to find two things beautiful. It might not sound much different, but as I ran it struck me as an important distinction, and one that is hard to put into words. Off the top of my head the best example I can think of is Erica and Isabel playing new pieces on the piano. To the outside observer walking by our open windows, the faltering fingers, incorrect notes, and accidentally atonal tunes are objectively NOT beautiful. But to me in the dining room, seeing the concentration, determination, and sheer enjoyment on the faces of my wife and daughter as they begin to struggle through new pieces is beautiful.
As experiments go, this one comes with absolutely no cost and a huge potential payoff.