We think of Sir Isaac Newton as a pretty smart guy.
He described properties of physics, including the laws of motion and universal gravitation. But when it came to talking about his own accomplishments, he credited others who had come before him.
In his letters he wrote: “If I have seen further it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants.”
His point was that he merely improved upon the substantial work of earlier thinkers. That’s an interesting way to look at one’s own place in life… as being built on a base others constructed.
Almost every day I give thanks. It’s brief, but it happens. My normal recitation includes being thankful for my health, my wife, my children and my extended family, for the fact that I live in a country where I can pursue my own goals, and the level of success I’ve been able to achieve in spite of some poor decisions on my part.
As Thanksgiving approached this year, I went through this list and realized I was only halfway done.
The reason I’m able to enjoy and give thanks for what I have and where I am is that others have come before me, creating the situation that has allowed me to move farther along.
Over the last 400 years, as we have progressed from the time of the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving feast, daily life has changed dramatically for the average Joe in the United States and other developed countries.
We’re probably not giving thanks for plentiful crops, even though without them there wouldn’t be food on the shelves.
Less than a century ago more than half of the U.S. population lived on farms. We spent more than 25% of our income on food.
Today food is so plentiful that we throw away billions of pounds of it a year. Advances in mechanization, farming, irrigation, and fertilizer have all brought about a time in which I don’t have to worry much about a good harvest.
Many people like me are thankful for their health, but do we stop to consider the many ailments we’re able to fend off with a quick trip to the local drugstore?
Think about the cold, flu, and allergy aisle, with all of the choices for making us more comfortable for less than $8. This doesn’t even touch the issue of doctors and hospitals…
As recently as during the Civil War, our response to many types of wounds was amputation, using utensils that the doctors had used on numerous patients without cleaning them in between procedures. We’ve come a long way, and I am certainly thankful for that!
Then, of course, there’s security.
We don’t worry about attacks from warring neighbors. In the western nations, we’re concerned about intrusive government, but haven’t had to deal with widespread cases of false imprisonment at the whim of a dictator. This happens in many places today, but not here.
This security was not created without consequence or sacrifice, but it was accomplished without my sacrifice. I didn’t sail across the ocean for an ideal… braving the elements and unforeseen hardships. I didn’t work to create self-rule or to defy a kingdom through revolution. I haven’t fought in foreign lands.
From the beginnings of the U.S. through today, I am thankful that those others have.
As for my own success, often despite my own actions, I thank Providence. Others might see it as provenance, karma, or fate, but the theme remains. Something outside of ourselves affected our lives for the better.
I am thankful also for the people who have crossed my path in daily life and affected me in positive ways. My parents are in this group of course, as are a couple of dear friends that have helped me make better choices along the way.
Think of the uncle who lent you money when you were just out of college… the work colleague who made a suggestion that changed your job trajectory… or the friend whose words lightened a tough personal situation.
Such people have allowed us to move forward in our own lives through their actions and contributions.
Looking back across the things I often count as marking success – better health, more wealth, more time with family – I’m struck by the fact that these things focus on the ease of daily living and personal enjoyment. Of course I’m thankful for them, but I also recognize that I’m still not finished. There’s more to it than acknowledging the good things in my life.
Sir Isaac Newton was right. Recognizing others who’ve come before you, providing guidance, input, or support in ways that helped you achieve something unattainable on your own, is part of understanding how we all can improve the human condition.
After giving thanks myself, I can then ask for the persistence and dedication to use my comfort and success to help others. It could be through organized efforts at a soup kitchen or other outreach program, or simply sitting with a friend, helping him through a difficult time.
Perhaps one day I’ll be remembered when someone else is giving thanks. Then I can be grateful for having joined the ranks of the many who came before me, providing the base upon which I stand today.
I hope that each of us becomes a person for whom others are thankful.
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