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.
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Jaydra is a human in-process, working to make the world a better place. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and observations about the human experience.