I used to carry around in my wallet a little picture of Vedran Smailović. He was the cellist who became famous for playing Tomaso Albinoni’s “Adagio in G Minor” (actually probably composed by Remo Giazotto) in ruined buildings during the siege of Sarajevo. When a group of 22 people waiting in a bread line were killed by mortar fire, he came out in evening dress 22 days in a row, braving sniper fire in the square, to honor each of them with the Adagio.
For a long time I didn’t know quite what it was that spoke to me so deeply—I only knew that his witness brought tears to my eyes every time I thought of it. It still does. I think I have figured it out. It’s that Smailović dared to believe that his gift mattered, that his gift was the right one. He dared to believe that playing the cello was a meaningful response to war. He dared to believe that the Adagio was what was needed at that moment, and he summoned it from his cello for anyone who cared to listen.
His conviction brings me to my knees in awe and gratitude.
I’ve spent a lot of my life doubting that my gifts mattered or were the right ones, doubting that what I had to offer was what the situation really needed. Smailović reminds me that these sorts of doubts are not a healthy humility—they are a lack of faith. And if we allow our doubts to drive our inaction, we will deprive the world of our sorely needed gifts.
Lately, when I’m tempted to sneak away from a big, challenging situation because I think my gifts are not the right ones, I try to imagine what Smailović’s faith might look like for me. Could it be that maybe the thing that’s needed is actually something I know how to do? Could it be that writing a letter or offering a cup of tea or giving a long, long hug is my Adagio? Maybe it’s organizing a protest. Maybe it’s praying for someone. Maybe it’s naming the elephant in the room, or pointing out that the emperor has no clothes, or humbly saying “I’m sorry.”
I don’t know how to fix this big, bleeding world. I don’t know what to do about our biggest, most intractable problems. But I can show up, I can cry with the world, and I can offer my small comforts. Today maybe I will bake cookies for the revolution!