It is human nature to take things for granted. When you’ve always had something, when it’s been around your entire life, it’s only natural to overlook it, to think it will always be here.
But that’s not the case, and this time of year reminds us to be appreciative of what we have.
I’m not talking about creature comforts like plentiful electricity, clean water, electronic gadgets or the family car.
I’m talking about the freedom and opportunity we Americans take for granted.
My epiphany came during the Cold War when my military unit was sent to the Czech border. Czechoslovakia was then part of the Communist Bloc, and its government and military were under the thumb of Soviet leaders in Moscow.
There was a one-mile kill zone separating West Germany and Czechoslovakia.
All trains crossing the border into West Germany would slowly move over pits of scalding water sprayed onto the undersides of passing trains to kill any Czechs who were clinging to the train’s undercarriage in an attempt to escape.
I always wondered how any government could kill its own citizens just because they were seeking an opportunity for a better life someplace else.
It suddenly occurred to me that we, in the United States, are spoiled, and we really don’t understand the value of our freedoms.
For the last three years, I’ve had the good fortune to work with high school students and teachers in Poland.
Washington business leaders, educators and students travel to places like Gdansk where Polish students and teachers are eager to emulate America’s free enterprise system.
They remember what it was like to live without it.
After World War II, Poland became part of the Warsaw Pact, and its government was dominated by the Communist Party in Moscow, which dictated production and controlled the markets.
If you wanted a home or apartment, bureaucrats decided what it would look like and where it would be built. While government and party leaders had plenty to eat, nice homes, new cars and warm clothing, the rest of the people barely scraped by.
A visit today to the Solidarity Museum in Gdansk is a stark reminder of the food, clothing and housing shortages that ravaged Poland and its people.
One powerful display is simply a section of empty grocery store shelves.
The numbing repression and shortages led to the Solidarity movement, which began in Gdansk, home to one of the world’s largest shipyards.
Many remember a short, wiry shipyard electrician named Lech Walesa, who scaled the shipyard fence and issued 21 demands to Polish Communists for better pay, better working conditions and more food.
Pope John Paul II and President Ronald Reagan fueled the fires, and in the early years, the United States secretly provided significant financial support to Solidarity. That support has not been forgotten in Poland.
Today, Polish leaders want their teachers and students to enjoy the values of an economic system where consumers decide which goods and services thrive in the marketplace. For that, those leaders look to America.
We Americans have been blessed with freedom and abundance. Even in tough economic times, we have choices and opportunities others only dream of, which is why millions of immigrants from around the globe come here. Yet, we often take it all for granted.
When we gather around the dinner table on Thanksgiving, we should give thanks for what we have and pray that we never go through what the Polish people endured before they earned their freedom 23 years ago.
Don Brunell is president of the nonprofit Association of Washington Business, Washington state’s oldest and largest statewide business association.