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Jewish World Review Dec. 31, 2004 / 19 Teves, 5765

Tom Purcell

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Consumer Reports

Oblivious Americans | I know a woman who refused to celebrate Thanksgiving this year because President Bush won reelection. I got to thinking about her as I followed the tragic events in South Asia last week.

Here we have been in the thick of the holiday season in America. I've been enjoying one party after another. My family is doing exceptionally well, and I've had a chance to catch up with friends. I've been extraordinarily blessed this year.

Thousands of people were also enjoying themselves on the beaches in South Asia. One moment they were soaking up the sun, the next they were overcome by violent waters that came out of nowhere.

The stories of what happened are heart wrenching. One father fought to hold onto his small son as the water pounded him, but he was hit by a large piece of wood and he let go. He watched helplessly as his child was pulled out to sea.

I saw a photo of a young Swedish boy on the verge of tears. He survived the tragedy, but lost his mother, father and siblings. There are other stories of young men who have lost their brides, of parents forced to choose which of their children to grab onto.

In many cities, people are fighting over scraps as they wait for supplies to arrive. There is no fresh water to drink. Medical experts fear thousands more will die from disease that will feast on the battered cities and people.

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It's hard to comprehend the enormity of this pain and suffering. I can read about it and see images on television. I feel awful about what happened. But for the most part, I am insulated from it here in stable, comfortable America.

Which brings me back to my friend who didn't celebrate Thanksgiving this year. In her own small world, she decided she had little to be thankful for. Because Bush won, she concluded, there is no reason to celebrate being an American this year.

Her viewpoint is a symptom of how oblivious so many Americans have become to how good we really have it here.

We forget that we can do or be whatever we want here. The opportunities truly are endless. We can educate ourselves, get good jobs with good incomes, live in nice homes and enjoy the highest standard of living in the world.

We can celebrate any religion or none at all. We can criticize our political leaders or praise them. We can participate in our government by voting or not vote at all. We can move about freely and live and work wherever we please.

That is our challenge, actually. We have it so good here, we become oblivious to how badly people live in most parts of the world. There is genocide and mass slaughter. There is poverty and living conditions so dreadful, people are lucky to live beyond 50.

We forget all of this. And where death is concerned, we forget. Years ago when people asked "How are you?" they meant what they said. Dying was so commonplace that anyone could be taken at any time. My own grandfather died from a strep infection that is now easily cured by penicillin.

We forget about death because America, land of innovation, has made enormous advances in medicine that allow people to live long and productive lives. Even when natural tragedies strike, such as hurricanes and tornadoes, few die in America. Our wealth and innovation allow us to create effective warning systems and build homes and buildings that, in many cases, are able to sustain the winds.

No, we have everything to be thankful for in America. The tragedy in South Asia should remind us that any of us are but a heartbeat away from dying, and any of us can be taken any time.

The least we can do is be thankful for the extraordinary blessings we have here and send our money and our prayers to the thousands of people who are suffering in ways that are difficult for us to comprehend.

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© 2004 Tom Purcell