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[Kim Seong-kon] ‘You never know what you have until it’s gone’

There are things that we take for granted and thus do not appreciate until they are no longer there. In the restroom of Ground, a coffee shop in New London, New Hampshire, there is a sign that says, “You never know what you have until it’s gone. Toilet paper, for instance.” Indeed, we do not realize how important and indispensable it is to have toilet paper until it is gone. Of course, toilet paper is not alone in this.

I know someone who has breathing problems due to severe nasal congestion and sinus pressure. During the daytime, it is all right. At nighttime, however, his sinus becomes swollen, and mucus blocks his nasal path. As a result, he cannot breathe easily and thus has difficulty sleeping well at night. Every evening, he has to use saline nasal mist, Flonase spray, Sudafed Sinus Congestion, and Sinus Flush to fall asleep comfortably. Because he fights with sinus congestion every night, he realizes how fortunate it is to breathe freely. Few people would appreciate their breathing ability in their everyday lives. In fact, we are rarely even conscious of it.

Indeed, we do not know what we have until it is gone. For instance, we do not realize how precious our spouse is until they are gone. We just take our spouse for granted and thus do not fully appreciate our invaluable better half. That is why we frequently become angry with our spouses and make our priceless life companions unhappy. Instead, we should cherish and treasure our spouses and be grateful to them for “being there” for us.

That goes for our parents, too. We frequently complain to them, “What have you done for me? Nothing!” It is an insolent, ungrateful remark that breaks parents’ hearts. Anyone who has raised a child knows how hard it is to take care of a baby. It takes years of hard work and is a full-time job. Yet, we unashamedly croak, “You have done nothing for me.” We will realize how much our parents have given us only after they are gone.

We also take it for granted that we have a country. Think about those refugees who have lost their country and have to seek asylum elsewhere. Edward Said, my academic adviser at Columbia University, used to tell me with a heavy sigh, “You’re lucky to have a country to return to. I don’t have any.” He was of Palestinian origin, but he came to the US when he was in high school. Appreciating one’s country has nothing to do with patriotism or nationalism. It is just that we should feel lucky to have a country of our own. We should also feel lucky that we were not born in the North or any other totalitarian country.

Freedom is another thing we take for granted. Like breathing, we do not realize the value of it until it is gone. In every moment, we need freedom, and yet we are not conscious of it because it is always “there.” When we lose freedom one day, however, we will feel suffocated. As they say, freedom is not free. We have to fight for it. We may lose freedom in two ways: by a dictatorial government in our own country or by an overbearing foreign country that invades or manipulates our country. Sometimes, we do not even realize that we are losing freedom because the process is so subtle and inconspicuous. That is why we should always be alert and prepared.

When it comes to freedom, ivy is a good metaphor. In Korea, people think of ivy simply as a decorating plant for the outside walls of buildings. In fact, however, ivy is an aggressive, life-threatening plant that endangers other plants. Its roots and vines creep in silently, wind around other plants, and suffocate them eventually. Likewise, our freedom, too, can be canceled by subtle but aggressive ivylike political power that encroaches on every aspect of our lives unless we are vigilant.

In his celebrated poem, “Blue Sky,” poet Kim Su-young writes: “Once a poet envied/ The freedom of a lark,/ Its rule of the blue sky./ One who has ever soared/ For the sake of freedom/ Knows/ why the lark sings/ Why freedom reeks blood/ Why a revolution is lonely/ Why revolution/ Has to be lonely”. In this poem, translated by Peter H. Lee, the poet suggests that freedom is not free, but a reward for a revolution. He goes further to say that we should know “why a revolution is lonely.” That means we can have freedom not through noisy, crowded demonstrations but through a lonely, individual and spiritual fight.

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


Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.
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