Concrete jungle where dreams are made of,
There’s nothing you can’t do,
Now you’re in New York,
These streets will make you feel brand new,
big lights will inspire you . . .
—Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, Empire State of Mind
After almost a year of living in New York City, I have found few moments in which to experience relief from the city’s numbing din of traffic and glam, from constantly being among the thousands of restless souls so driven to just “make it.”
Growing up in a New Jersey suburb (which necessarily included fun outings to the city), I developed a romanticized idea of life in the Big Apple. The sights and sounds always enthralled me, and I hoped that I would live there one day. Popular culture only reinforced my misplaced notion of city life through the years. Most recently, Jay-Z and Alicia Keys tell us that in New York, “there’s nothing you can’t do.” So wrong you are, Jay-Z and Alicia. There is one huge thing that I can’t do here on an uncomfortably frequent basis: find deep, abiding peace, or, as pop psychology would call it, my “center” or “quiet place.” While both religious and secular folk often talk about the crucial need to find daily peace in the buzzing urban environment, so many New Yorkers—myself certainly included—find it nearly impossible.
I have no magical words to resolve this issue—only an experience in which I felt a conspicuous sense of God-given peace. Several weeks ago, I decided to wake up early and go for a run. I pulled myself out of bed at 7:15 and jogged through Manhattan’s Upper West Side. I was tempted to chart a course through Riverside Park, but I stayed on the sidewalk, and I’m glad I did. The sights and sounds I encountered there inspired me to be more receptive to God’s peace and presence.
Several quick and powerful impressions came to me during that run. I noticed the relative quietness of that time of day—an overriding stillness before the noisy crowds and traffic jams would take over. A large number of parents walked their children to school. Most of the time, there were few words exchanged. There was no pressing need for words, and it seemed liberating for both the parent and child. The refreshing calm was contagious, as I was able to easily catch it each time I jogged past a parent and child. Groundskeepers were rinsing off sidewalks in front of their apartment buildings—a cleansing which seemed to symbolize the city’s “reboot” at the start of every day. And during the course of my run, I too experienced a reboot in my own spirit.
I don’t intend for any of these impressions from this experience to be exemplars in themselves. Human beings can—and do—find peace in so many ways. But I think that regardless of the content or method, there is a certain spiritual posture that lies behind a peace-filled experience: attentiveness. Reflecting back on my run that morning, I realized that I was intentional about being attentive to my surroundings, and the results really surprised me. I’m not tooting my horn here. I’m just highlighting how easy it was to let peace flood in.
In his mystical, contemplative work The Attentive Life (InterVarsity Press, 2008), Leighton Ford effectively summarizes what attentiveness is:
Attentiveness means respecting, attending to, waiting on, looking at and listening to the other—the persons and things we encounter—for what they are in themselves, not what we can make of them. We are called to pay attention to the Other—our Creator God—to know and worship him.
So the challenge that remains is to pay close attention, hearts and minds all in, so that we can readily sense God’s presence running through the concrete jungle of Manhattan—or any other urban center for that matter. We must turn, turn, and turn again to our Creator and Redeemer for that restorative peace that always seems to evade our grasp. When we do—and sorry, Jay-Z and Alicia, but I have to borrow your phrasing—His presence and light will indeed inspire us, and there really will be nothing we can’t do.