What the Pilgrims knew and we can find out

Coming into New York on the commuter train, you’ll see a billboard towering above the South Bronx as you cross the Harlem River and the maze of highways and bridges that lead to the greatest city in the world — a billboard with an obscure message for the powerful and wealthy, the dispossessed and poor, a billboard that says simply “GRATTITUDE.”

It is a copy of an acrylic paint collage of newspaper clips and art books by pop artist Peter Tunney, who added the extra “t” as an expression of, he says, turbo-charged gratitude.

At this time of year, cynics might wonder how the residents of Staten Island and the Rockaways could have GRATTITUDE after Hurricane Sandy ravaged their neighborhoods, destroyed their life’s possessions and left many homeless. Wouldn’t a more appropriate billboard be one that proclaims, “ANGER” or “DESPAIR"?

And yet at Thanksgiving, even people who have suffered deprivations, people who ostensibly have the fewest blessings to count, are often the most grateful.

Analysts and positivists would have a psychiatric field day with that notion and probably suggest it’s an elaborate mind game that deludes people into thinking there’s a reason to be grateful, even when they have so little of what the world deems as valuable, such as material possessions, pleasure and prestige.

Or perhaps they have a gift that eludes the rest of us — the ability to be thankful, not to mention the realization that being thankful to God is itself the greatest gift, which was something the Pilgrims understood after that first winter when they almost starved.

I’ve known people who believe gratitude is the essence of happiness, including my late father, a recovering alcoholic who spent the last 25 years of his life sober in Alcoholics Anonymous after 35 years of drinking. Whenever I grumbled about the pain and trials I encountered, he’d say, “You need the attitude of gratitude.” That attitude, I learned, was a foundational principle of good sobriety in AA.

Alcoholics who endured the worst deprivation and despair because of their drinking — the drunks who lost everything — had the most gratitude for their sobriety.

And when my daughter Julie returned to America after working with Mother Teresa’s nuns in India, caring for the destitute and dying, it was as if the scales fell from her eyes, and she looked at life differently. Frivolous things like fashion and partying were no longer as important.

Amid the squalor and wretchedness of Calcutta, she saw entire families that lived in cardboard boxes on the streets, and, she recalled, they were smiling. They clearly viewed life through a different lens.

Many of us don’t know how to give thanks and were probably never taught the importance of saying “thank you” to man or God. We look at life as an entitlement, which means we believe we’re owed what we have, and we’re responsible for our successes.

Then, there are those with little, who consider each day as a gift and each encounter as an opportunity to spread love and GRATTITUDE.

I used to think people who said “count your blessings” were naive, but I’ve come to believe they’ve found a higher truth. They possess a rare attribute that at its core is the essence of a happy life. It’s the ability to give thanks. Yes, it’s GRATTITTUDE. (I thought I’d add an extra “t” for good measure.)

Happy Thanksgiving.

Joe Pisani can be reached at joefpisani@yahoo.com.