I love celebrating my birthday. Some people don't like marking another trip around the sun, but I just completely enjoy it. It's a day that makes anything I do special simply because I am doing the birthday version. Brunch with the family? Heck yes family birthday brunch! Sitting at a park with friends? Heck yes b-day park hang! Very normal, regular workout? Heck yes birthday workout! Grillin' and chillin' in the back yard? Heck yes birthday grill 'n chill! It doesn't matter how mundane, add the birthday honorific and it's suddenly noteworthy. Like all the birthday naps I've enjoyed over the years.
Part of my love for celebrating my birthday stems from childhood. It was the one day a year that was all about me. There was such high emotional volume from other members of my family the rest of the year, there wasn't space for my emotional experience most of the time. I learned to take up as little space as possible in a variety of ways and it helped me keep the peace as much as possible around me. But every year on my birthday, everybody else shelved their extra and it was my turn to shine.
It was tradition for my parents to hang streamers the night before a birthday, so we could wake-up to a colorful acknowledgement of the day's specialness. A balloon marked the place of honor by hanging over the b-day person's usual spot at the table. Every birthday started with family b-day breakfast. After that, my parents were pretty creative. I can remember some outlandish experiences for the very low budget household we were. I'm sure my parents pulled some favors to arrange a ride-along in a small two-seater plane, a day off school to go to my dad's company picnic at the lake, and a clown show for me and my four closest friends.
Those were pretty memorable events because they were so far out of the ordinary. As I accumulate more years on the planet, the less extravagant things are more and more my favorite. One of the few friends I've had since the 6th grade (who I still see regularly) calls me every year and sings me a dramatic, interpretive birthday song. It's different every year because they make it up on the spot, and listening to it fills my heart with so much joy. My birthday just wouldn't be the same without that phone call from that human.
Birthdays are also a wonderful time to reflect on who I have been this past year and who I want to be going forward. Someone once told me they didn't make New Years Resolutions, they made Birthday Resolutions instead. It's probably safe to say I do both because I'm personally fond of the practice of reflection. It's an integral component of growth, which is important to me, and reflection can be any mix of joyful, painful, insightful, or intriguing.
This year I'm also reflecting on how birthdays are celebrated. The image in my mind of the "typical American birthday" is the greeting card version: humans gathered around the birthday person who is about to blow-out the candles topping a cake. Everybody has a party hat and there is a stack of presents nearby. I've been to a lot of birthdays like that, and not just for children. So what does that say about the American birthday experience? What values do we express with this kind of birthday celebration?
Certainly the individual is at the center of things. Community is present, but the focus is on the birthday person. Apparently in Vietnam everybody celebrates their birthday on the national New Year holiday called Tet, when everyone turns a year older along with the nation. I appreciate both approaches. From a purely practical standpoint, every citizen turning a year older on New Years would simplify some parts of bureaucracy. At the same time, I believe each person makes a unique contribution to the world and recognizing that feels meaningful and important.
I'm less enthralled with the gift portion of the typical American birthday. Don't get me wrong, I love presents. I love giving gifts and I love receiving them. But I don't like the obligation of gift-giving for societally or socially pre-determined occasions. I much prefer a gift from a friend on any random day because they saw something and thought of me. A physical symbol that I was lovingly on someone's mind is delightful any day of the year. It almost holds even more meaning because it's not attached to a scheduled gifting.
And just like the madness of the Xmas gift season, anytime expectations exist there is an opportunity for disappointment. There is a lot of pressure (crafted largely by the interests of Capitalism) to buy "the perfect gift," and far too many definitions of what that might possibly be. Is it the most expensive gift? The rarest item? The thing that took the most effort to acquire? There's no way to know because there isn't actually an answer. By design, the inquiry is what drives you to shop until you drop in the relentless pursuit of that unattainable goal of perfection.
We also can't forget about the cake. Sugar is a terrible drug, and no one should consume it… ever, for any reason. But it's acceptable to indulge on your birthday. This feels like the most insidious because it implies we can have things that are harmful to us as long as we have a good enough excuse. This practice plays out in many areas of our lives. Had a tough day at the office? How about too many drinks to wash it away? Stressed about a work deadline? Skip the gym and order-in while you complete that assignment.
This also extends beyond our personal physical and mental health. As a society, we employ excusable indulgence all over the place. We know we need to collectively eliminate harmful carbon emissions to avoid worsening the climate crisis, but we continue to collectively create excuses to delay that painful transition. There is plenty of data showing the way to end homelessness is to provide people with housing, but many cities continue to do just about everything but that. Economists have told us plainly that our current model of constant growth cannot go on forever, but buying stuff is supposed to make us content so we just keep consuming.
We're always practicing something, every moment of every day in everything we think, feel, do, and say. How we move through the world has an impact, whether we acknowledge it or not. It's worth considering why we do things the way we do them. It’s worth identifying what practices cross-over to which areas of our lives. The more clear we can be about what we're cultivating on accident, the easier it will be for us to cultivate a future we want on purpose.
Information and Inspiration
A cute video came across my social media feed this week. It features a person and their brain facing a common conundrum. They make a beautiful plan, stand back to admire the plan, then realize it's time to do the plan. And that's when they abandon the plan. I have definitely experienced this exact moment in my life, apparently just like the entire rest of the internet. The video is hilarious precisely because it is so relatable.
Chances are if you live in a modern western industrialized society you have also been there. The reason may vary from person to person, but that transition point from planning to doing is a challenge for us all. Some folks get stuck due to the wiring of our brains. Other folks can't make the shift due to some flavor of circumstance outside our control. Other times, we arrive at this particular pitstop because it is designed into the structure of whatever organization we're working within.
I am reminded of a single-frame cartoon that hung in my office my entire career as a federal employee. The cartoon shows a group of professionals gathered around a conference table. One person is standing authoritatively with a piece of paper in their hands, and a flowchart hangs on the wall. The caption simple reads "this plan will be much easier not to implement than the last plan we didn't implement."
I have no idea where I found that cartoon originally, but I kept it because it captured my experience of bureaucracy perfectly. The people in charge would gather to craft plans for the upcoming quarter, season, etc, then present those plans to all employees in a big meeting. But when we all got back to our desks we would do the same work in the same way, except that we were expected to use new buzzwords to describe what we were doing. In the end I left because I realized I could not create change within government from my position as one tiny cog in the great machine.
There are innumerable versions of advice for how to bridge the gap from planning to doing, but the first step in solving just about anything is knowing the root cause. Most of the advice out there starts by assuming you have already identified your particular flavor of stuck. Very little guidance is focused on sussing-out that minute detail of extreme import. I think this is one of the major reasons we as a global society of humans can't seem to get our collective shit together to do the solving of global problems.
There is a multitude of reasons major national and international institutions flounder in the sea of status quo. Maybe instead of forming another committee to review the issue, we should just start making shifts and see what happens. Try literally anything different and be prepared to adjust and shift and pivot again if and when that change isn't moving us closer to resolution. At the very least it would break the monotony of using only well-worn methods to forge a path forward in this new world.
This week I finished a major project, squeaking in under the deadline like movie action heroes who roll out of the dangerous tomb just as the rock wall falls heavily in place to block the exit for another thousand years. My focus has been spotty to non-existent in the last few weeks due to grief and emotional processing. I wanted to get things done. I wanted to follow my beautiful plan and do all the things I scheduled and put on my calendar, but I just... couldn't. So I reached out for support and reshuffled my priorities.
This week my doing barrier was built of emotional upheaval. Next week it might be a differently flavored disaster. Unfortunately those have been especially plentiful the last two and a half years. And it doesn’t seem like the tide of catastrophe is set to ebb any time soon. So we all need to come together and find a way to help each other keep moving through the many economic, social, and environmental storms on our collective horizon. We can’t just plan a better world, we have to do things and make it happen.
Information and Inspiration
I saw an episode of "The Sandman" this week in which one of the characters laments the recent completion of a significant goal. While the goal remained unachieved, this character felt a purpose beyond their function. Once they succeeded, they could not see a meaningful way forward. Their sibling offered council by explaining their function is their purpose. In the case of these two characters, that’s probably true: they have specific and well-defined roles in the universe.
But what about ordinary humans who are not assigned a universal vocation like Death or Dream? Is it important for us to feel like we have a purpose beyond our function? I suppose it depends on what we see as our function. I have had a number of functions assigned to me by society (and other people) over my lifetime. I have been assigned obedient daughter, caretaking wife, supportive co-worker, responsible party, keeper of secrets.
In centuries past my primary function would have been facilitating my uterus growing future humans. Some people find a great deal of purpose in parenting and when I was younger I planned to be a parent. Although, I don’t think I put together that plan because I really wanted the experience of raising a child. It was more a plan formed because it fit the societally acceptable model of success I was trying very hard to achieve. Since then I have shed so many layers of societal expectation that my decision not to procreate has a much clearer and deeper foundation than my parenthood plan ever did.
So what then is my function if it’s not to further the existence of the human race? When I think about the skills and abilities I have, the thing that seems like my most base and primal function is: to be a connector. I see relationships between concepts, people, and places in a unique way. I am also able to explain what I see in ways other people can understand. It’s the thing I’ve been doing since before I can remember.
When I was young, I employed this skill frequently in my role as family mediator. As a young adult, I used my power of perspective to advocate for people and causes often overlooked. Throughout my accounting and fraud-fighting career, I have distilled complex concepts into understandable systems as a regulator, an educator, an investigator, and a financial mess detangler.
I think my purpose is to express my function in a way that makes the world a better place. To be an example of a healthy way to relate to people and the planet. To be an antidote to the ills of society that stem from humankind’s detachment from our own humanity. And to encourage as many other people as possible to realize they can do the same healing work and make a positive difference in the world. It’s not the only thing I’m good for, but it’s the one I take the most satisfaction from. That seems like a pretty good reason to embrace it.
I am forever adding context. To conversations with other people, to my own mental meanderings, to public announcements about the way the world is. Context is where the connections become clearer. When you have enough context, the relationships between seemingly disparate things can become obvious. My personal anti-oppression journey has consisted largely of learning a more and more complete history of my community, society, and the world. All of which adds more context to everything happening in the world we live in today.
If the key to living a life of meaning is to live a purposeful life, then it’s critical to suss-out your purpose. There are many methods you can use to get there, and the internet is full of advice about how to do it. One starting place I invite you to explore is identifying your function. In this context, I think a person’s function is what they cannot help but do - no matter what they are doing. I cannot help but see the connections in the world. I am a connector to my core.
I am also privileged with sufficient resources and a family and community support structure that enables me to participate in thoughtful introspection and intentional living. So now that I have named my function, I can decide how I want to express that function out in the world. I can choose my functional purpose. I can channel my mundane superpower through just about any instrument to affect how I do my work, my relationships, and my life. And I can make adjustments to that application any time I need to.
If the usefulness of one iteration fades out, you can shuffle it to the back and try something else. One trap that’s easy to fall into is thinking you need to find the one correct purpose and stick with that for the rest of your life. Humans are multi-functional by nature. It’s how we survive as individuals and a species. That means we are capable of filling many roles and being many versions of ourselves. Just because I am a skilled mediator doesn’t mean I have to spend my eternity mediating.
The incredible benefit of living in this moment in history is that we have a greater degree of choice over our guiding purpose and any choice at all about what function we fulfill. Most of us don’t have to spend all our time and energy gathering or growing food, or fending off dangerous animals. Take advantage of that opportunity and do something great that only you can do. And during the process, see if you can create more space and opportunity for someone else to bring their medicine to the world. Ultimately it’s going to take every one of us doing all we can.
Information and Inspiration
I took a Lyft to meet up with friends this week and had an interesting conversation with the driver. Apropos of absolutely nothing they shared the news that another food cart pod had burned down. Another? I didn’t know about the first one... But I have been checked-out of a bunch of things the last few days, so I looked it up. And there is was: a second food cart pod in a week to go up in flames. The first one was an exploding propane tank, the cause of the second was unknown.
The Lyft driver was feeling suspicious. Since it happened twice it couldn’t be just a fluke, right? Someone must be up to something. Maybe. Maybe not. I don't personally have enough information to say - the first one was downtown and the second was in the Boise neighborhood. I don't know enough about either pod to identify any connections (or lack of connections). The Lyft driver's reaction reminded me of a phrase I read a few months ago:
When something happens only one time, it can be easily excused as coincidence. It's inconsequential in a way that can be forgotten as if it never even happened. When something happens twice, it suddenly becomes a pattern. And that completely changes everything. A pattern feels much more impactful and weighty. It feels like something that's here to stay. Ever since I took algebra in high school, I have expressed this with the phrase: one point is just data, two points make a line. Less poetic, but the same sentiment.
Before I visited Europe last month I already knew I was able to eat the dairy on that continent (even though I cannot have cow dairy here in the US). And I wasn't mad about it. I was just fascinated that a different breed of cow could completely change the digestive experience of their milk products. Then I accidentally found out about the pigs... It turned out I can eat pork in Europe even though I cannot eat pork here in the US. Suddenly it wasn't one interesting dietary anomaly; it was a pattern of toxic US food. And that's when I got mad. I want to eat food that isn't poison and that's more challenging than it should be just because of which country I live in.
Most of the examples of twice-occurring happenings that initially came to my mind were negative or detrimental, but I think this same phenomenon also applies to positive shifts. This week Morocco looks poised to become the second country in Africa to offer menstruation leave. Zambia paved the way in 2015. One country offering leave to people with a uterus might be just someone in government being extra. It could even be a fluke. But two countries on a continent feels a whole lot like the beginning of a movement. And I hope it is. I hope that movement spreads all the way to the US.
Derek Sivers expressed a similar observation in his Ted Talk about starting a movement. One person can start anything they want, but it can't become something larger until the second person arrives. Just one person doing a new dance move on TicTok or asking for greater attention to human rights or wearing brightly colored sweaters in a sea of folks in drab clothing could just be one weirdo. But as soon as someone else stands alongside them, it's no longer just one person and their radical vision. It's something legitimate with a following.
So look for something happening that makes the world a better place and if they need a second person to further that movement momentum, step on up. If you can also notice things that should not continue, try to stand in the way of it catching on. I know it's easy for me to say and challenging to accomplish, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't all try. Maybe you've never considered this dichotomy before, maybe you have. Either way, I offer you this framework and encourage you to use it to identify at least one way you can make a difference in the world.
Information and Inspiration
Jaydra is a human in-process, working to make the world a better place. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and observations about the human experience.