There are things that we take for granted and therefore don’t appreciate until they are gone. In the restrooms of Ground, a cafe in New London, New Hampshire, there is a sign that reads, “You never know what you have until it’s gone.” Toilet paper, for example. Indeed, we do not realize how important and essential it is to have toilet paper as long as there is no more. Of course, toilet paper is not the only one in this case.

I know someone who has breathing problems due to severe nasal congestion and sinus pressure. During the day everything is fine. At night, however, his sinuses swell and mucus blocks his nasal passage. As a result, he cannot breathe easily and therefore has trouble sleeping well at night. Every night he should use a saline nasal mist, Flonase spray, Sudafed Sinus Congestion and Sinus Flush to fall asleep comfortably. Because he battles sinus congestion every night, he realizes how lucky he is to breathe freely. Few people would appreciate their breathing capacity in their day to day life. In fact, we are rarely aware of it.

Indeed, we do not know what we have until it is gone. For example, we don’t realize how precious our spouse is until he is gone. We simply take our spouse for granted and therefore don’t fully appreciate our invaluable better half. This is why we frequently get angry with our spouses and make our precious life companions unhappy. Instead, we should cherish and cherish our spouses and be grateful to them for being “there” for us.

This also goes for our parents. We frequently complain, “What have you done for me? Nothing!” This is a cheeky and ungrateful remark that breaks the hearts of parents. Anyone who has raised a child knows how difficult it is to take care of a baby. It takes years of hard work and it is a full-time job. Yet we croak shamelessly, “You haven’t done anything for me. We won’t realize all that our parents gave us until they’re gone.”

We also take for granted that we have a country. Think of those refugees who have lost their country and must seek asylum elsewhere. Edward Said, my academic advisor at Columbia University, used to say to me with a heavy sigh, “You’re lucky you have a country to go back to. I do not have any. He was of Palestinian descent, but came to the United States when he was in high school. Appreciating one’s country has nothing to do with patriotism or nationalism. It’s just that we should feel lucky to have our own country. We should also feel lucky that we weren’t born in the North or any other totalitarian country.

Freedom is another thing we take for granted. Like the breath, we don’t realize its value until it’s gone. At every moment, we need freedom, and yet we are not aware of it because it is always “there”. However, when we lose our freedom one day, we will feel suffocated. As they say, freedom is not free. We have to fight for it. We can lose freedom in two ways: by a dictatorial government in our own country or by an authoritarian foreign country that invades or manipulates our country. Sometimes we don’t even realize we are losing our freedom because the process is so subtle and unobtrusive. That is why we must always be vigilant and prepared.

When it comes to freedom, ivy is a good metaphor. In Korea, people regard ivy simply as a decorative plant for the exterior walls of buildings. In fact, however, ivy is an aggressive and potentially deadly plant that endangers other plants. Its roots and vines silently creep in, wrapping around other plants and eventually smothering them. Likewise, our freedom can also be nullified by subtle but aggressive ivy-like political power that encroaches on every aspect of our lives unless we are vigilant.

In his famous poem “Blue Sky,” poet Kim Su-young writes, “Once an envied poet/ The freedom of a lark,/ His reign over the blue sky./ The one who never flew/ In the name of freedom/ Knows/ why the lark sings/ Why freedom stinks of blood/ Why a revolution is lonely/ Why the revolution/ Must be lonely”. In this poem, translated by Peter H. Lee, the poet suggests that freedom is not free, but the reward of a revolution. He goes further by saying that we should know “why a revolution is lonely”. It means that we can have freedom not through loud, crowded protests, but through solitary, individual, spiritual struggle.

We take a lot of things for granted. The Korea-US military alliance is one of them. We should appreciate it and be grateful. As the maxim goes, “We never know what we have until it’s gone.” By then it will be too late to regret it.

Kim Seong Kon
Kim Seong-kon is Emeritus Professor of English at Seoul National University and Visiting Scholar at Dartmouth College. The opinions expressed here are his own. — Ed.