Many moons ago my wife and I purchased our first house and unknowingly inherited a wet and leaky basement.
After multiple floods and attempted fixes, we finally stumbled upon a combination that worked that kept the space dry. But these sorts of things are common in 100 year-old houses; they just come with the territory. With our purchase we inherited not only a set of problems, but a home full of character and charm that endeared itself to us and became a setting for cherished memories.
We humans inherit lots of things: DNA; culture; environments; mannerisms; habits; knick knacks; beliefs – but very rarely do we choose what we’re getting. It just comes to us. And because of that we can neither take credit, nor blame ourselves for whatever it is that’s been passed along.
As we’ve been thinking through the practices of gratitude, I’ve been struck by the way in which we are born into a world full of systems and traditions and cultures that are rich in what they bring to our lives. Living in our illusions of self-determination, we exclude all that’s come before us. We fool ourselves into thinking we’ve made our own little banquets without appreciating how the table was set for us ahead of time.
Sometimes it’s hard to feel grateful for things others have passed down to us. That health condition you got from your mom, that temper you got from Uncle Bill, that reputation your family name carries with it that you just can’t seem to shake no matter what you do – they can feel a lot more like curses than gifts.
I don’t know where to draw the line between a gift a curse. It doesn’t seem so simple as just calling the things I don’t want curses and the things I do want gifts. Maybe there isn’t a line, or maybe our limited perspective makes it difficult to see what in the grand scheme of things is blessing and what isn’t.
I do know that all of us inherit some gifts when we are born into this world. I also know that the distribution of gifts isn’t equal or fair, and I still don’t know how to reconcile those facts. Why I inherited a legacy of family members who are so good at being loving while other people grow up without much experience of real love is a mystery I cannot solve.
But the gifts we inherit are far more diverse than we likely recognize.
In spite of what the news tells you, there is much good in the world and much of it is the result of other people working hard, making sacrifices, doing the right thing, and exercising faith and commitment to a cause they believed in. As I talked to my daughters about the possibility of the US electing a female president, they were astonished to learn that their great grandmothers didn’t have the legal right to vote. My kids and I, all of us, are the benefactors of movements of social justice in the past 100 or so years that have brought unprecedented change in positive and humanizing ways to world’s people. We inherit the legacy of suffragettes and feminists, and of individual women of courage who gave themselves to work for justice. Because of them we’ve inherited a world of opportunity that did not belong to generations before us.
Our inheritance is so much deeper and broader than what comes from the reading of a will after a funeral, or the contribution of genes from our parents. We are born into a world that is the product of billions of human choices. We receive legacies that, in their apparent ordinariness are often overlooked.
Who taught you to be kind? Who made that work of art that stirs your soul? Who decided that access to health care should be universal? Who designed that bed you sleep so peacefully on? Who invented that seat belt that keeps you safe, or wrote the code of ethics your doctor follows when giving treatment?
This summer I watched a sunset with some friends while listening to salsa music and sipping a glass of wine. And as I tried to pay close attention to what was going on I became somewhat more aware of all the people who had been involved in making this moment possible. People who learned to make wine. People who created exceptional music. People who had taught them. Parents who drove them to lessons. People who gave their creative energies to make better wine and better music. People who made the iPod we were listening to. People who preserved this lake and built this cottage. The inheritances at work in a moment like that are astonishing.
So this week’s practice of gratitude comes down this:
What have you inherited? What gifts surround you – passed down by people acting in the best of their humanity – that make your life richer and contribute to your own flourishing? What and who made this moment possible? Try looking back at all the contributions that might have been made that allow you to live this way at this time. Who and what might you have to be grateful for?
I know the inheritance question can bring up a lot of painful memories for people. It can also plunge us headlong into the dark waters of the unfairness of the world. And while I would never encourage you to dismiss or minimize those feelings of being dealt an unjust hand in life, when we are able we must also pay attention to the things we can recognize as gifts in our lives and celebrate them wholeheartedly. If you can, trying seeing what good you have inherited in your life. You don’t have to deny your hardships, but perhaps there is something you’ve been freely given that your heart would do well to acknowledge.
A flooded basement feels like a curse when you’re tearing up wet carpet and disposing of the possessions that were wrecked. In our case some of the things that were damaged by the water had been wedding gifts. But after feeling a little sorry for myself, I recognized that all of our lives have floods that destroy and take away gifts we’ve received. There is no way to avoid this but even then we can be grateful for those water logged things as we grieve their loss.
And we can be grateful for all the other gifts that remain – surrounding us as our rich inheritance bequeathed upon us just for entering this splendid universe. Remember, you didn’t get to this moment all by yourself. All of this is possible because of contributions from other people. Whatever goodness you’ve experienced today is the result of a great pooling of love, time, energy, sacrifice, commitment and creativity. Which is truly a legacy we can be grateful for.