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rembrandtMy son is studying acting in college. After more than a year of having people respond to this bit of news by quoting me the success rates for actors in our country or reciting the US News and World Report list of majors that lead to the highest (and lowest) paid careers, I find myself automatically attaching caveats and disclaimers. I’ll shrug my shoulders and say, “Who knows where it will lead?” or give a knowing smile and say, “I know, I know. But it’s what he loves.”

And, in essence, while these responses are designed in part to defuse a conversation I don’t really feel like having, they are also truths that are at the very core of my understanding of my job as a parent. I trust that if my son follows his heart and digs deep into what he loves, life will lead him on an exciting and fulfilling journey beyond any that I (or he) could plan for himself. To use acting as a metaphor, there’s just no part of me that feels the need to script or direct his life for him. I view my role as a passionate member of his audience. One who wouldn’t miss a single performance, who will applaud wildly for his successes and be there to support him no matter what.

It hasn’t always been this way for me – in relationship to my son or to myself. I have tended to be a hold-on-er rather than a let-go-er. A planner rather than someone comfortable with seeing what happens.

In fact, if I’d followed my own heart in college, I would have been an art history major. But people asked me what I’d do. Not having a great answer, I focused elsewhere. Learning about third world development (my actual major) simply wasn’t as natural a fit for me as my art classes. I particularly loved the secrets tucked into so many masterpieces by the artists. There was an intimacy to figuring out that the shape of a space between two figures could symbolize the Holy Grail, that the interplay of light and shadow could indicate life and death or good and evil, or that you could tell who the people were by the color of their robes.

Rembrandt, the great Dutch master, was one of my favorite painters to study. His “Return of the Prodigal Son” contains precisely the kind of secret that has always intrigued and thrilled me. Rembrandt gave the father two different hands. You may not notice this at first glance, but when you spend time really looking at the painting, it leaps out at you. One of his hands is feminine and one is quite masculine. In school, I decided this detail represented both parents welcoming their lost son home – the father and the mother. In fact, I wrote a decent paper on the fullness of this particular welcome. The gentle, protective hand of the mother and the supportive, strong hand of the father that gave the boy the freedom to leave in the first place.

Last week I ran across a commentary on this painting by Henri Nouwen, in his book Discernment. He was taught that the father’s hands in Rembrandt’s painting depict the hands of unconditional love. “One says, ‘I’ve got you and I hold you safe because I love you and I’ll never be apart from you. Don’t be afraid.’ The other says, ‘Go, my child, find your way, make mistakes, learn, suffer, grow, and become whom you need to be. Don’t be afraid. You are free and I am always near.’”

Reading these words, I realized what I never could have understood as a twenty-something student. Then I viewed the painting from the perspective of the returning son. I related intimately to the painting as a daughter. Halfway through college, the thought of heading out on my own seemed terrifying. I yearned for the welcoming embrace of home, of my parents. Two short years later, I would need the other hand, the hand that would encourage me to spread my winds and fly. Today, I see the painting from the perspective of the father. His hands are mine now – both the feminine one and the masculine one. I see the gentleness, the steadfastness and the constancy of my love for each of my children. I also see the power and the strength asked of me to give them the freedom to walk their paths in life.

These two types of love balance each other. One without the other could cause damage – smothering or seeming aloof. Not only do we all seek both of these types of love in life, we all must also learn to give both. One “hand” will probably feel more natural to each of us. Though we may be more inclined to shelter, to protect, and to hold close, we still need to learn to stand back, allowing our beloved to stretch their wings and even to fly away.

Yoga teaches us over and over again that natural proclivities can be worked with. We can stretch and change ourselves inside and out. With practice, we can learn to love with “both hands.” On days when I’m tired or worried or anxious, I may need to go easy, to retreat, and to be reminded that I am perfectly OK no matter my successes or failures. But if this were the only kind of self-love I practiced, I’d never learn and grow. On other days, I need a stiffer kind of love. I need to be reminded that failure is often a necessary stepping stone to eventual success. These days call for a metaphorical push from the nest. I need the freedom and the encouragement to try and try (and try) again.

Whatever the day holds for you, whatever your situation – whether you’re a teacher, a friend, a parent, a colleague or a boss – visualize Rembrandt’s painting. Watch yourself so you don’t mindlessly default to your natural tendencies. Instead, try to find the appropriate balance of holding close and letting go. In other words, pray to hold the people in your life with the two mismatched hands of unconditional love.