Recently, my son and I visited my uncle, who showed us a family heirloom that is literally priceless. The item itself certainly has a monetary value, but what it means in terms of my own ancestors, as well as the larger fabric of American history, is of incalculable worth.

And perhaps most importantly, relics like this one bring home the lesson that if you want inspiration for the future, you need look no further than the past.

It was the day we were leaving, and my uncle turned to Aaron, lightly touching his arm. “Do you want to see your great-great-great-grandfather’s surgical kit?” he asked. “He was a doctor in the Civil War.”

“Sure.” Aaron nodded politely, but I could tell he was only half there. My uncle has no Internet and no cell phone reception, and Aaron was counting the hours until he could get back on Facebook. It had been two days. Things were happening and he was missing them.

My uncle took an ancient-looking doctor’s bag down from a high shelf, and pulled out an assortment of metal tools, each one more horrific than the last.

He explained to Aaron that they were used right near the front lines, without anesthesia, and that my great-great grandfather, John Taylor, once had operated for nearly 72 hours straight after a particularly brutal battle. He took us through the bone saws, a medieval looking mechanism used to extract a bullet, and a nightmarish device you inserted deep inside a wound to spread it wide open so the bullet-remover could follow.

Aaron forgot all about Facebook, his eyes flicking back and forth between my uncle and the tools. “Oh, man,” he kept saying. “Those people were conscious? No way.” I could actually see his worldview getting a little bigger, see him comparing his own life with the lives of those who had gone before him.

“What ended up happening to John?” he asked.

My uncle gently closed the bag. “The man never really recovered psychologically,” he explained. “He died in a mental hospital.”

Aaron actually flinched a little. “Oh, man,” he said again.

My uncle smiled kindly. “We are so lucky,” he said.

It sounds corny, but the older I get, the more I realize that “we are so lucky” is one of the most profound and true statements that can be made today. I think of John standing in a blood-filled tent with severed limbs and screaming men all around him. How did he find the strength to pick up that saw one more time, to tell yet another begging solider that nothing from the thigh down could be saved? Did he go into shock? Did he pray?

We are so lucky. 

I think of our fellow humans in Libya, Haiti, Somalia and too many other countries to name. They live in grinding poverty, fear and turmoil every day, and yet they find the strength go on.

We are so lucky.

Today we have the opportunity, through our chosen line of work, to provide a wonderful product to those around us fortunate enough to be in a position to receive it. Sure, things are tough right now, and the economic recovery is fragile at best. But looked at another way, every time a customer gets into one of our sparkling pools or soothing hot tubs it’s a miracle of birth and geography. They are incredibly blessed.

And so are we.