We Stand on Many Shoulders

… the more we appreciate the contributions of our ancestors the sooner we will realize that we are ancestors too. We are followers in the continuum of history, but we are also leaders, entrusted with the future.

Wherever we are in our lives is, to some extent great or small, the result of the influence of others. The further we travel on life’s path the less those influences may seem to matter, but they are always present even though we are not consciously aware of them.

The most apparent influences in our lives are parents, peers and educators, but others may have played a significant role during our development as a human being, or in school, or in our career. As we grow and develop these influences shape our opinions, our decisions and our outlook on life. As we mature, we form our own opinions, make our own decisions and frame our own outlook on life. Yet, we never completely separate ourselves from these early influences.

Many of our choices, even later in life, arise from our youthful inspirations. Our career may be the direct result of the influence of a parent or an educator. Our choice of life partner may arise from attractions or aversions carried over from past relationships. Our parenting style may be molded by repeating things we liked as children and avoiding those things we didn’t like. These influences may become less pronounced, and we may become less conscious of them – if we ever were – but they are always there to some degree. Often, we succeed because of them; many times, we succeed in spite of them.

Human history is a continually evolving process of people influencing the lives and future of others. Because of the choices and efforts of those who came before us we have progressed from the cave to the duplex, from chiseling marks on clay tablets to using laptop computers, from tapping our fingers and toes to symphony orchestras.

Regardless of how we perceive our world today, it is the result of a ongoing process beginning with our earliest ancestors and progressing through each successive generation. Their choices and actions are influencing our lives today, just as our choices and our actions will shape the lives of those who come after us.

Our lives are also being influenced in the present. Our partners, our parents and our children influence us every day, every moment. So do our friends, our neighbors and our coworkers. It is in these close personal relationships that we notice the influence of others the most. And, it is within our close personal relationships that our lives evolve from dependence to interdependence.

Interdependence, however, extends far beyond our personal relationships. The food that we eat, the clothes that we wear and the shelters that we sleep in depend on those far outside the small circle of personal relationships. For all but a few of us, the food that we eat does not just magically appear on our dinner plates. Others have cultivated it, harvested it, packed it, shipped it and perhaps prepared it. Many hands were involved in delivering the food to our plates. And many hands were involved in creating the plates and the utensils that we use to eat. This interdependence expands into every area of our lives. We rely on others to transport ourselves to work, pay the electric bill and remove our trash.

Even those who live seemingly independent lives by growing their own food, making their own clothes and building their own shelters are interdependent. They may be mostly independent of other human beings to a large degree, but they must still rely on nature to provide what they need for their subsistence living.

Recognizing the contributions of others in providing what we need to sustain our lives is an important step toward realizing just how far our web of interdependence extends. It develops our appreciation for the migrant farmers who pick our food, the workers who filter our waste products, and those who risk their personal safety to protect us.

In modern society, our web of interdependence reaches far beyond our neighborhood or our village. We live in an age of global interconnectedness where we rely not just on the person across the street to observe the building code and parking regulations, but also the person across the world to preserve the rainforests and harness destructive weapons.

In a global village, we rely on others who appear to be very different than us. These differences are necessary to some extent because they produce unique skills and characteristics that are necessary for the global village to survive. Such differences, however, are superficial because we are all innately human with the same basic needs and desires. For the global village to thrive we need to respect the differences and acknowledge the similarities. By doing so we come to appreciate the contribution that everyone makes in our lives.

That appreciation should extend to ourselves as well, for we are also making a contribution to benefit the lives of others, and we should do so in a responsible manner. The more we understand our interconnectedness, our shared humanity, the more effective our contribution will be. And the more we appreciate the contributions of our ancestors the sooner we will realize that we are ancestors too. We are followers in the continuum of history, but we are also leaders, entrusted with the future.