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When she started playing, I thought, Whoa there, sister, dial it back! You have a whole concerto to get through yet! She looked so young and tiny on that big stage surrounded by the orchestra, and yet she immediately committed her whole body into the lyrical opening: eyes closed, brow furrowed, bow-arm high, knees bent, swaying and dipping. All this for a simple melody! At that level of intensity, would she make it all the way through the gigantic, athletic Tchaikovsky concerto?
I needn’t have worried. Though she looked like a cherub-cheeked teen, this was Caroline Goulding, seasoned professional. For the next half hour, my husband and I watched, completely fascinated, as she flowed and dashed and ripped through that piece. She never let up her expressiveness and intensity, not for a moment. Here she was ecstatic, there determined, here melancholy, there delighted—at one point I swear she almost laughed aloud. She was all in.
Nothing in the program revealed her age. I had to look it up later to discover that this busy concertizer is only 21. I can see why she has won so many awards already. She’s special not only because she plays with musical sensitivity and technical mastery, but because she performs. And not in some flamboyant, aren’t-you-all-impressed-with-me sort of way. She enters the music completely, she reveals how wonderful it is in there—and that becomes her gift to us.
All week I’ve been thinking about her, even after the themes of the concerto stopped circling around in my head. What does it take to go all in like that? Why is it so special when someone can do it, not only once but night after night?
You hear theater directors, when their lackluster actors are lagging through a scene, call out: “More energy! Commit!” And of course you hear coaches—sometimes even coaches of exhausted nine-year-old soccer players—bellowing things like “Leave it all on the field!” As audiences and fans, we love it when performers and athletes spend themselves for us. We expect it, even.
So why is it so hard to do? Why is it that when we see it, it seems special? I’ve been wondering about that this week, as I travel through my ordinary days. Am I going all in? What does that even mean in ordinary life?
I’ve eliminated some things that appear similar, but are somehow distinct. For instance, going all in—at least the way I’m thinking about it—is not the same as competitiveness. All in is not the same as Lean In, a matter of leveraging self-assertion toward success and power. Nor is it bungee jumping or off-roading or other daredeviling. Nor can it mean—as some writers and celebrities seem to think—excessive self-revelation. As Brené Brown explains in her book Daring Greatly, oversharing is not brave, it’s just needy. Finally, all in is not a shorthand for “following your dream” and sacrificing everything, determined to “make it to the top,” whatever that means.
It seems to me that competition, daredeviling, oversharing, and dream-following all curve inward on the self—what I want, what I will take, what I’m willing to do to get it. Whereas I think the phenomenon I’m trying to understand here is ultimately about giving. Here is how much I am willing to give.
Maybe this is why all in is so difficult. Giving takes courage; it costs, and we’re hesitant to pay. We’re tired, we’re distracted by cares and worries, and most of all, we’re afraid.
The thought of expending ourselves arouses the most basic, cliché, and therefore persistent fears. What if no one wants what I give? What if they laugh or hate me? What if it’s not good enough? I mean, come on: it must be easier to go all in when you are obviously a prodigy. The rest of us can pretty much plan on missing notes or fumbling the ball or looking stupid. And then what?
Or how about this fear: What if, once I give, I have nothing left? That one whispers to me the most. Some part of me likes to warn that it’s better to hold back, be cautious, lie low.
I know better. I know Annie Dillard is right, at least about writing, when she says this:
[S]pend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.
Going all in requires getting past the fear of scarcity and instead trusting abundance. But getting to the place where “these things fill from behind, from beneath” usually means forgetting the self altogether with its greedy vanity and jittery fears. To do that, one must go all into something other than the self.
Well, what does one go into? With musical performance, or even sport, I understand one can enter the music or the physical motion. But what about our jobs or our interactions with people, the mundane routines? Somehow, in the middle of daily life, can we find somewhere, anywhere, that’s so important and beautiful it dissipates our weariness and fear? Is this what Jesus means when he invites us to “abide” in him, so that we may bear much fruit?
My late colleague Lionel Basney once wrote about the “dark inaccessibility” of musicians when they are playing: “The player seems to be hearing something from beyond the music—on the other side of the door from which the music comes—which only the music can be evidence of.” He lamented the mysterious barrier between himself and that place where musicians go; he spoke of it as a door he could never get behind. But barriers become portals: exactly when the musician goes there, and forgets herself there, that’s when she gives the most to us.
Maybe going all in is less a matter of determined, clenched-fist effort and more a courageous forgetting, an abandonment, even a carelessness: “Cast your bread upon the waters,” says the Teacher, “for after many days you will find it again.”
Annie Dillard quotation from The Writing Life. Lionel Basney quotation from “The Space for Grief.”