Give thanks this holiday

It’s 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 there.

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 freedom and opportunity.

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 U.S., 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. 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.

The numbing repression and shortages led to the Solidarity movement, which began in Gdansk.

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 the U.S. secretly provided financial support. That support has not been forgotten in Poland.

Today, Polish leaders want teachers and students to enjoy the values of an economic system where consumers decide which goods and services thrive.

For that, those leaders look to America.

Americans have been blessed with freedom and abundance. Even in tough economic times, we have choices and opportunities others only dream of. Yet, we often take it all for granted.

When we gather around the table on Thanksgiving, we should give thanks for what we have and pray we never go through what the Polish people endured.

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