[Viewpoint] The power of thanks

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[Viewpoint] The power of thanks

Americans dedicate the third Sunday of November to the celebration of their Thanksgiving holiday. Every society observes a special time in the year to celebrate and appreciate the year’s harvest and other blessings. Human civilization has upheld the tradition because giving thanks has a mysterious power. Being thankful for everyday things can fill the mind with peace and a transcendent sense of gratitude. A TV comedy gag on the theme of things we should be thankful for is gaining popularity because, despite its exaggerated sense of parody, the act of giving thanks can generate a feeling of warmth.

The country is presently undergoing a crisis. The biggest flashpoint is the conflict between the older and younger generations. Generation gaps exist in every society. But it is rare for a society to have such a deep and conspicuous generation gap in political viewpoints. Many factors are behind the divide, but I want to highlight the differences in degrees of feeling appreciation.

Younger people are unhappy and frustrated with their lives because they are going through tough times. But you can hardly say the older Koreans had it easy. Young people fear they won’t be able to afford homes in which they can start families. But their parents started families in rented rooms. It was natural to start out in such a meager way since they were the generation who suffered through war and survived on foreign aid. They could not be more proud and appreciative of what their country has become today.

Although life isn’t necessarily easy, we tend to feel blessed when we can compare today to hard times of the past. The younger generation has not been through such extreme poverty. They are used to modern comforts and luxuries. It’s hard to be appreciative for the things you’ve taken for granted all your life. Instead, it’s easy to get upset over minor setbacks and difficulties.

The conflict over the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement can also be viewed through the lens of appreciation. Opponents of the FTA blame neoliberalism, championed by the United States for decades, for all of the inequalities we see in the world today. They believe a free trade agreement with the U.S. will lead to greater American influence. Proponents of the FTA are grateful for all the help from Americans over the last half-century and support stronger ties with our long-standing ally. One side resents Americans; the other is thankful for their friendship.

Frankly, we could not have accomplished so much so fast without the U.S.’ support. We alone could not have defended ourselves from North Korea and its powerful patrons, China and the Soviet Union. Our agricultural society evolved into an industrial powerhouse by selling wigs, footwear, television sets, automobiles and semiconductors to our biggest benefactor, which happened to be the world’s largest economy. To deny this fact is denying the facts of history.

Appreciation comes from an optimistic faith in one’s destiny. What made today’s United States of America was the Americans’ innate belief in “Manifest Destiny,” the 19th century belief in an American mission to promote and defend democracy throughout the world. In his 1776 pamphlet “Common Sense,” Thomas Paine advocated the American Revolution as the country’s mission to create a new world. Americans came to believe their experiment of republicanism, freedom and democracy could replace the Old World’s order, which was based on monarchies. They believed it to be their mission to spread these newfound American virtues and extend their destiny under God to other lands and peoples. They endured and expanded on the wings of that belief.

South Korea, on a tiny peninsula in the Far East, was one of the world’s poorest nations with a gross domestic product of $70, similar to African nations. In just a half-century, it has become one of the world’s 20 major economies. It is truly a miracle that a country sandwiched among global superpowers like China, Japan and Russia has become such a competent and formidable player on the global stage. We can also claim that this was our destiny. We, too, had the intrinsic belief that we could one day succeed. We were thankful for what we had - but diligently worked for the day when we’d have much more.

There are many things to be grateful for today as well. While debt-laden European countries like Greece and Italy are teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and France is on the verge of suffering a downgrade in its sovereign credit rating, the Korean economy, in contrast, got an upgrade.

If political parties learn from the phenomenon touched off by software mogul Ahn Cheol-soo, which shows that the public longs for change in our mainstream politics, our democracy could make bigger strides. Japan is still shaken by the aftermath of March’s terrible earthquake and China is on the thin ice of a communist dictatorship that has gone on too long. Compared to them, we have much to be thankful for. But too many of us are resentful. Excess optimism can blind us from reality. But excess pessimism can undermine national morale.

The older generation has to teach the younger generation to be more thankful. The starting point would be some lessons on the painful history of our past. Gratitude does not merely come from material contentment. It has more to do with spiritual satisfaction. That is why most religions teach their followers about the need to be thankful. What this country needs is an awareness of history and a positive spirit.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Moon Chang-keuk
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