When you pass over the Harlem River on the commuter train, a tall billboard rises above the neighborhood in the South Bronx, screaming "GRATTITUDE" in huge capital letters against a red background ... and that’s all it says.
Every day I wonder about that billboard, and not just because it has one "T" too many. It seems so out of place as it towers above the congested highway, a creepy men’s club with exotic dancers, a welding supply store, a taxi cab company, and vegetable gardens on otherwise vacant lots.
On my bad days, and I’ve had more than my share of self-inflicted bad days because of my tendency to be negative, that billboard reminds me to take a serious look at my life and the way I’m living it. You see, I have no real reason to complain but I do anyway. Why?
Perhaps my late father was right when he used to say that I don’t have the "attitude of gratitude." (He would have spelled it with just two t’s – and they were lower-case.)
When I pass that billboard on my way to work, I have to smile because it’s as if my father is hassling me from the Great Hereafter, "You knucklehead, it ain’t gonna get better until you get the attitude of gratitude!"
Why don’t I have that attitude and why am I prone to looking at the cup as half empty – if not absolutely empty – especially when my situation is better than most and I have no real reason to gripe?
My father learned about this so-called attitude of gratitude when he got into Alcoholics Anonymous at age 50 and his life started to change a day at a time. After a lot of struggling – or because of a lot of struggling – he became a new man and left behind the despair and meanness.
A day at a time, he lived the last 25 years of his life sober, despite throat cancer, several mini-strokes and many other setbacks that would have once caused him to drink himself into a stupor.
They were problems that might prompt an outside observer to ask him, "With all that’s going wrong in your life, what do you have to be grateful for?" Nevertheless, he was grateful because of the lessons he learned in AA.
Believe me, I want that attitude of gratitude because I’ve seen what it can do. I want that attitude of gratitutde more than I want a promotion, more than I want a big raise, more than I want a BMW, more than I want a lot of flashy and cool friends, more than I want praise or fame. I want that attitude of gratitude because it’s the secret to happiness. I’m sure of it. I’ve seen it.
One of my father’s friends in Alcoholics Anonymous was an old-timer named Bill M., who spent most of his life on the Bowery, drinking sterno and sleeping in the gutter, until the day he stumbled into an AA meeting and found his Higher Power, whom he called "God."
Bill would sit at meetings, smiling serenely and dressed nattily in khakis, a button-down Oxford shirt and cordovan wing tips, and you would have thought he taught philosophy at New York University.
Whenever he spoke to people, he emphasized the importance of gratitude. He was thankful for what he had – which was a lot more than he had when he was drinking. He’d also say that your Higher Power doesn’t necessarily give you what you want, but sure as heck gives you what you need.
Most of all, Bill M. was grateful for his sobriety because without it, he had nothing, and he was grateful to his Higher Power for giving him a second chance.
I know this much: Gratitude is a gift that everyone can have. It’s a grace, and you don’t have to be a recovering alcoholic who wasted years of your life on Skid Row. Just ask God to give you the grace to see all the good things he’s given you and say "thank you" – because if you’re saying "thank you," it’s better than saying, "gimme more."
So thank you, Dad, and thank you, Bill, and thank you to all the recovering alcoholics in that AA meeting in the Great Hereafter. Thank you for putting that billboard up for me to see every morning on my way into Manhattan and on my way home because I need that regular reminder.
(Postscript: As it turned out, the billboard is a copy of an acrylic paint collage of newspaper clips and art books by New York pop artist Peter Tunney, who added the extra "t" as an expression of increased gratitude.)
J.F. Pisani is a writer who lives with his family in the New Haven area.