The officiator at my daughter’s wedding ceremony recited the oft-quoted Quaker proverb, “Thee lift me and I’ll lift thee, and we’ll ascend together.” The phrase captures a universal truism: human beings are social creatures. We need one another.
Last spring, I visited Nuremberg, Germany, before embarking on a river cruise. Nuremberg is perhaps most famous for its role in Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and the Nuremberg trials after the war. I visited the Word War II sites during my stay, but a visit to the town square left a much more meaningful impression. It is there, in the old city, that I learned a valuable lesson about companionship in life as I visited the half-timbered house where Albrecht Durer, one of Germany’s most famous artists, once lived.
Durer was a German Renaissance painter who specialized in printmaking and painting. He was a contemporary and friend to major Italian artists of the time such as Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci.
Durer’s training as an artist is often told through a moving story about one of his most famous paintings: "Praying Hands," circa 1508. Despite the story’s fictional foundation, I can vouch for the meaning behind it — no one ever makes it alone in life. We need the love and support of family and friends to reach our full potential.
The story goes like this:
Albrecht and his brother Albert lived in an extremely poor household with lots of mouths to feed and few resources to do it. Both brothers wanted to pursue an art career, but knew their father could not afford to send either of them to the art academy.
The two boys discussed their lot and worked out a solution. They decided to toss a coin. The loser would work in the nearby mines and pay for the other to attend the art academy. After four years they would switch roles. In this way, both of them would receive the art training they desired, and the flip of the coin made it fair.
Albrecht won the coin toss and traveled to Nuremberg to study art. The other brother, Albert, went underground in the mines and for the next four years financed his brother’s art career.
Albrecht developed into a sensational artist. He created remarkable etchings, woodcuts and oil paintings. By the time he graduated, he was able to earn considerable fees for his commissioned work.
When Albrecht returned to his village, the family hosted a celebration dinner. Albrecht offered a toast to his beloved brother who had enabled him to become a great artist. He said, “Albert, blessed brother of mine, now it is your turn. Now you can go to Nuremberg to pursue your dream, and I will take care of you.”
Albert sat there with tears streaming down his face. When he finally spoke, he said, “No, brother. I cannot go to Nuremberg. It is too late for me. Look at what four years in the mines have done to my hands! The bones in every finger have been smashed at least once … no, brother, for me it is too late.”
In the more than 500 years since, the art of Albrecht Durer remains legendary, but one piece stands out — the pen and ink drawing of two hands clasped together in prayer. According to the fable, the artist created the praying hands as a tribute to his brother’s sacrifice. They are his brother’s working hands — worn and abused in the mines as a testament to brotherly love.
The hands for me are a reminder — nobody makes it alone. Whether it is parents with a special-needs child, a family with a loved one stricken by cancer, a person who has lost her job, or any number of gut-wrenching experiences, we need each other. It is through lifting one another that we find peace and happiness in this life. Find someone to lift today.