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‘What is the real breath of a man — the breathing out or the breathing in?’

By David Giuliano

It is a fine house. The countertops are marble; the floors are oak. We are drinking coffee from his expensive espresso machine. A shiny RV is parked in the driveway. In the garage there is a tricked-out bass boat, a four-wheeler and two snow machines. Gregor (whose name and personal details have been changed) has climbed the ranks of his profession and is well paid. But he asked me to come by because, he admits, “I think I’m depressed. Unhappy for sure.”

He tells me, “I’m grateful. I count my blessings. I grew up poor. My father was a drunk, a violent man. Now I have everything.” He waves an arm to indicate the luxury that surrounds him. “But I’m sad all the time.” His eyes well with tears.

“I wonder why you feel sad,” I say.

“Well, I’m a selfish man,” he says. “I’m greedy. I never think of anyone but myself.”

It’s a fact. I have known Gregor for a decade and cannot think of a single thing he has done for someone else. He often calls on me in crisis but does not support our church. He doesn’t volunteer with service organizations. He has never donated money to charity. He once offered to take me fishing — if I paid for the gas. Gregor is grateful but he is not generous.

In Margaret Atwood’s novel The Blind Assassin, the prophets of the alien city of Sakeil Norn have a saying: “What is the real breath of a man [or woman] — the breathing out or the breathing in?” I don’t think Atwood was writing about gratitude and generosity in particular, but as it sometimes happens, words work in us in unintended ways. When it comes to the essence of thanksgiving, gratitude and generosity are inseparable — just as inhaling and exhaling are both essential to breathing.

“I don’t know what to do. What do you think I should do?” Gregor asks.

I suggest generosity: “You could volunteer or help a neighbour or give some money away. Maybe that would help?”

He throws his hands in the air. “I could never do that. I’m just not that kind of person. There are people like that, generous people, whatever. I’m not like them. I can’t.”

“Maybe something small,” I say. “A little donation might make you feel better about yourself.”

“Impossible,” he insists. Defeated, he drops his hands onto the table. We sit in stumped silence. I pray with him before I leave.

Gregor is a profoundly wounded man, someone who has never experienced the link between gratitude and generosity. He is an extreme example, but many of us fail to comprehend this connection. Even those who are both grateful and generous are sometimes unaware of how intimately the two are interwoven. It is as though Gregor breathes in but never breathes out.

It is right and good that on Thanksgiving Day we gather around our groaning tables, join hands and voice our thanks for the goodness and blessings of life. We give thanks for the unearned, undeserved blessings of simply being alive, for the miracle of it all. To be spiritually whole, to be breathing in, we need to live from an inner place of gratitude every day.

Gratitude is inhaling. Generosity is exhaling. True thankfulness is expressed by sharing. And by sharing, the abundance of our lives is made plain. It seems to me that generosity without gratitude can be controlling or miserly. Gratitude without generosity can be fleeting or shallow — Gregor’s life and his sadness bear witness to this truth.

Gratitude and generosity: the two are as singular as a breath. Thanks and giving.

Very Rev. David Giuliano is a former United Church moderator and a minister with St. John’s United in Marathon, Ont.

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