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Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

“A candle loses nothing when it lights another candle.”

Thomas Jefferson







My Aunt Jeanie was different from my other aunts. She was tall and strong, yet gentle and somewhat soft-spoken with me. She was a professional woman and had traveled around the country and the world. I remember a picture of her taken on a bright sunny day. She is standing in front of the Alps in Switzerland. There was something about that picture. It planted the seed of a dream with me. I could never have imagined that later I would go to Switzerland and meet my husband there!


I also remember my Aunt Jeanie giving me fun gifts. I recall receiving one gift when I was little, a new outfit. It was red and blue and different. I loved it because it was from her but also because when she looked at it she thought of me. I had this sense, even as a young girl that she saw something in me that I could not see in myself. I could be a person who could wear something like that red and blue outfit. But even more, I was the kind of person who could do things - even more than I knew I could do.


We all walk on the shoulders of giants*. We all benefit from those who have gone before us. We all have an aunt, a friend, a parent, or a mentor who seems to see something in us that we are not able to see in ourselves.


The Irish teacher and poet, John O’Donohue writes: “There is a quiet light that shines in every heart.” There is something in each one of us - a light - a light to shine forth goodness, blessing, and even a sense of wonder as we do the work set before us. We may not even know or fully understand how our light illumines. Perhaps that is when it shines the brightest - when we let it shine without pretense or pride. And at the end of the day, maybe that is what we need most, to shine forth our light and see the light shining forth in others.


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* The phrase “standing on the shoulders of giants” has often been attributed to Issac Newton in a letter to Robert Hooke in 1676. But it seems the phrase itself illuminates the point as scholars have found the idea in a 12th document, Matalogician by John of Salsbury. Still others believe that Salisbury was inspired by another, Bernard of Chartres, who wrote “We stand like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants”. The idea appears in art as well, depicted in a stained-glass window at Chartres Cathedral in France. Here four major prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel are presented as giant figures with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John portrayed as ordinary-sized individuals on their shoulders.


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