Interconnectedness, Gratitude and Debt to Others


Today, we have a guest blogger, sort of. The following was written a couple of years ago by my wife for a now-dormant blog. I was meditating last weekend on the interconnectedness of humanity and how much I owe to others. I was going to write on the subject but I can not top what she has already done. As you can see, she is a much better writer than me:-)


I recently read an interview of a self-described, self-made man. Asked whom he felt he owed for his success, his reply: “I never had ANYTHING handed to me. I don’t owe anyone but myself.”

My balance sheet is not so clean. Though our house and cars are paid, my personal debt load is so high I’m not sure it’ll be discharged in a lifetime. I had my first inkling of this one night at age five when I vomited my way down the green shag steps of our old farmhouse, looking for the bath. Somewhere in the back of my head it occurred to me to be glad it was Mom, not me, who would clean up that awful, stinking mess. And though I didn’t say, “I owe you one” as she washed me up, put on my clean pjs, and tucked me into bed to tackle the stairs, I did owe her for that and a million other small sacrifices she made.

When my dad used money hard won from years of pre-dawn to late night days building up this redi-mix business to pay for my college and my older brother spent two rare days off to drive me straight through from IL to graduate school in CA – insisting he take the longest night shift – the debt grew.

My grandpa taking my anxious calls about college exams, collect of course, and telling me jokes to make me smile, my fantastic husband who fully supported my decision to leave the practice of law, despite halving our income, friends, some of whose friendship now dates thirty years – it all adds up.

And what about the patient elementary school teachers, compassionate maternity nurses, and my neighbor Bud, cheerfully jump starting my mini-van one frigid February morning?

And as a woman, how do I repay suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Susan B. Anthony who faced a lifetime of heckling crowds to fight for my right to own property, vote, have a career, and not be beaten by an angry spouse?

One Friday this past fall, we took the neighbor kid with us to McDonald’s, then walked across the street to a big, old cemetery. Buried there is a man who died at the age of 102, named Nathanial Ames. Under his name is a plaque: “Served in the Continental Army Under General George Washington”.

I wonder if he was there with the other soldiers that bitterly cold Christmas night of 1776 listening to Paine’s words read by the General himself, “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman…”

And as for him and the other soldiers beyond weary, without tents or proper winter clothing, willing to take a perilous journey not for a pirate’s share of gold, but for an ideal – an ideal of freedom and democracy and the thought that maybe all men WERE created equal, well how to you repay THAT?

So you see, my debt load is high, but I’m working to pay it down in bits and pieces. I’m patient with the elderly driver creeping down the street in gratitude to all those who were patient as my own 80 year old grandpa tried so hard to hold on to his independence through his car.

I take a deep breath (sometimes) when I want to shriek at my kids and nod to my now deceased grandmas who raised great human beings under far harsher circumstances.

I try, not always successfully by any means, not to always ask, “What’s in it for me?”. But rather, “Am I paying my own way, at least a bit today?”

And I start this morning a bit in awe of the generosity of the human spirit!

About William Ockham

I am a father of two with eclectic interests in theology, philosophy and sports. I chose the pseudonym William Ockham in honor of his contributions to philosophy, specifically Occam's Razor, and its contributions to modern scientific theory. My blog ( explores Ignatian Spirituality and the intersection of faith, science and reason through the life and writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (pictured above).
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15 Responses to Interconnectedness, Gratitude and Debt to Others

  1. Lynda says:

    Yes, we each have a debt that can only be paid by paying it forward with deep gratitude. There is another debt that can never truly be paid except by surrendering our lives to our Lord in service to God and God’s people who include every person on the face of the earth. We have so much for which to be thankful and this weekend in Canada we are celebrating Thanksgiving so this post is especially appropriate for us. Let us all live every moment with great gratitude.

  2. You need to invite your wife back more often William—thank her for me…for helping to remind me of our “groundedness”—of the debts we owe, big and small, past and present to the countless others who forged the way ahead for those of us who remain today—reminds me of my grandmother, who would somehow sense that I was broke and would mail me $10 or $20, when I was in college…it’s the little things that mean so much that we most often take for granted—thank you Mrs. Ockham.

  3. I agree and thank you for your article that inspires others. I will say first that I don’t believe in obligation. When a person does something nice for me I don’t ruin the gift by worrying about how I will repay kindness. And I don’t believe in telling people what they owe me. If I present someone with an act of kindness-which I have written a chapter on and will blog-I do not wait for them to pay me nor do I believe that they owe me. I go as far to say, “This is a gift. It makes me feel happy to care.” 

    I believe in personal responsibility and a part of this is civic responsibility, which is the topic in which you speak, if I’m not mistaken. I believe that part of paying it forward-like the movie-entails being mindful of all mankind and being aware of how our actions affect our collective existence. So as you have eluded, the man was wrong; someone changed his diapers, fed him, allowed him the freedom to go to college, make money, whatever it maybe. The people who cared for him were not obligated to take care of him as I am not obligated to take care of my children, for example; I choose my daughters because their existence brings me great joy, I love them, and I want them to continue loving me, because they bring me great joy. So my motive is selfishness but that topic is for another day : )

    • Thank you so much for stopping by and for your insightful comments. You have a very interesting blog and I look forward to following it. You appear to have some of the same personality traits that I have, for better and worse :-).

      Your Ayn Rand reference is interesting as I was a follower of hers for a long time. Rand presents a very unique perspective of the nature of reality and what it means to be a human being. Specifically, Rand has a clear vision that humans are autonomous beings without any connection (physical, spiritual, emotional or otherwise) to other humans. As you indicate, humans can and do exhibit altruistic behavior, but the only morally acceptable motivation for such behavior is the self-satisfaction of the person performing the altruistic behavior.

      There is another perspective that views humans not only as individual, autonomous beings but also as part of a larger interconnectiveness of all humanity. In this perspective, we are still autonomous beings but all of our actions have an effect on others. This worldview says that self-sacrifice for a community (however defined), for the sake of self-sacrifice rather than for solely personal satisfaction, can be a moral good. You can sometimes get to the same result as you can under Ayn Rand’s Objectivism but the end goals and purposes are very different. Under Rand’s Objectivism (a term I found strangely Orwellian given Rand’s focus on the individual), the pursuit of ones self-happiness is always the ultimate purpose in life. Under the latter system, one needs to find ultimate purpose in the context of not only the individual, but of the broader community in which one lives.

      Feel free weigh in an correct my errors 🙂

      • I understand your comment about self-sacrifice. The most self-sacrificing person I know is Jesus Christ. It’s difficult to be self-sacrificing, because usually there is personal gain. Recently, I did some work for an associate-which was an imposition for me as I had other things to do. There ended up being no gain for this person is disrespectful, but then again there is gain because I have the satisfaction of knowing I did a “right” thing and I was given the opportunity to feel compassion for a person who does not understand the importance of respect and I also had the opportunity to work on patience, understanding, and rationalizing skills. So I guess there is always gain if we choose it for every moment and situation is a learning opportunity.

      • I just stumbled across the comment link on my avatar. Sorry for the belated response
        : /

        Altruism and selfishness is a paradox, I think. For example, the state of our collective existence is disharmonious to me, therefore I am compelled to find a solution, which gifts me with a sense of relief from anxiety. I want to problem-solve behaviors, but it is not burdensome, because I enjoy it. So I view the compliance of others to accept my help as a gift for me. I don’t do anything that is not beneficial to me. If I know someone who is moving, needs help moving, and I have the time to help I won’t do it, because it would be burdensome for me, but to relieve myself from a sense of guilt I will do something I do enjoy like creating a unique house warming gift or offering my creative eye in arranging a comfortable living space.

  4. Oh. And on the note of freedom. I would die for my ideal. I would die for American men, women, and children all to preserve my ideal. My motive is self-serving on a level-Ayn Rand was on point, so for anyone who hasn’t read Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead, which I like better. So I would die for my country and if by some chance I lived through my effort I would still believe that no one owed me, because my life is a gift and I mean to share it with others. I believe if a person exists on the premise of debt-debtor then that person has missed out on life’s meaning. Don’t be burdened with obligation; instead, live by your innate moral values and let your actions be marked with the freedom of choice.

  5. We take so much for granted. There are millions of unknown people – within our community, across the nation, and around the world – who contribute towards our way of life.

  6. ptero9 says:

    Thanks for sharing your wife’s inspiring post. It took me years before truly feeling grateful for the gift of family, and as well for all who have gone before us in life and carved a path, whether through knowledge, or prayers, or actions. We have never been alone.

    • Hi Debra, I am a late learner of this fact also. Learning to be more grateful is still a work in process for me but at least the awareness of everything I should be grateful for was a real life-changer for me.

  7. Maybe I should not have worded my thoughts regarding the acts of thoughtfulness, generosity, kindness, etc. necessarily as “debts to be owed and / or paid”– -My grandmother never expected that I should or would ever pay her back–and yet her giving and her generosity left the indelible mark within me that one day, I, too should / could give–never expecting to be paid back or given back, but that the cycle of giving, generosity and kindness should be a continuum—
    I certainly can’t “pay back” the soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the freedoms I enjoy today–but given the opportunity, I am to, in turn, help defend our freedoms for future generations just as the previous generations did for me—adding to the continuum….The Franciscan monk Maximilian Kolbe offered his life for that of a fellow prisoner at Auschwitz—the fellow prisoner had a family so Kolbe thought he would be the better choice to die in place of this husband and father. After the war, this man could not pay Kolbe back for his sacrifice but could rather offer hope and kindness to others…all a part of the continuum.
    If we look at the bigger picture, say, that of a man who gave his life in order that others may live, there is no possible way to pay back that sort of debt, as his death was the very payment to the debt which we actually all owed—and he took it upon himself freely, with no thought of pay back, as that sort of payment was tremendous and impossible on our part alone to ever “pay off.” But I suppose you’d have to be of the mindset to believe that you were a part of a fallen world, separated from the Father and that there was a debt to actually pay and that had to be paid with the life of that Father’s only son……
    If you’re not of that belief , then perhaps objectivism and it’s singleness of self can fill the your void—I don’t know. I think the real point here is not so much the payment of debt by those generous and kind individuals we’ve encountered thoughout our lives but rather our learning to be grateful even when we find ourselves underserving–hence what kindness is all about—giving way to the continuum of spreading kindness for the pure sake of kindness……

  8. Geralyn says:

    Thank you for posting this. And thank you to your wife for writing this.

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