In the Chartres Cathedral in France, four stained-glass windows depict the four Evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It's not unusual to find something like this in a medieval cathedral, but these particular images are unique because each of the Gospel writers is being carried on the shoulders of a revered Old Testament prophet: Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, or Daniel. In beautiful art glass, these images capture what Bernard, the 12th-century chancellor of the School of Chartres, told his students: we stand on the shoulders of the giants who preceded us.
This is a sentiment often expressed by those who accomplish something meaningful. In humility, they acknowledge that they have benefited from the experiences and wisdom of their predecessors. They recognize that at least part of the credit for their achievements goes to those who came before them.
And the same is true for all of us. Whether we know it or not, we all stand on the shoulders of giants—those strong, broad-shouldered people who have gone before and paved the way for us. Most often these giants are the common people who have made a difference in our lives: the parents, pioneers, leaders, and teachers who taught us, loved us, and helped prepare us for what lies ahead. Their examples of honor and integrity, their courage and sacrifice, their efforts and accomplishments make it possible for us to reach heights that otherwise would not be possible.
But it isn't enough just to have such giants in our past. To truly benefit from the wisdom and lessons of the past requires more than simply reading about a valued predecessor. It requires intentional effort. It involves a humble attitude and respectful spirit. It means learning from, but not being overly critical of, the mistakes of past generations. It includes acknowledging that while today's problems seem unique and even unprecedented, the answers always demand the same time-tested virtues: integrity, courage, faith, and love.
Our forebears always hoped that future generations would stand a little taller and reach a little higher than they did. And so we seek to honor them by living up to their legacy. As we do, we hope that someday we may provide the shoulders upon which the next generation of giants will stand.
Lloyd D. Newell