A birthday can be a lonely sort of thing. After all, no matter how much other people may be celebrating you, it really is all about you, and as Pooh says, “it’s so much friendlier with two!”
I believe this is part of the reason adults often have trouble celebrating their birthdays at all. Sure, another part may be the fear of aging and death, but I think the part we don’t talk about is the loneliness. Christmas is (theoretically) celebrated enthusiastically by everybody. But who (other than your own mother, perhaps) cares as much about your birthday as you do? Who does it affect as much as it affects you? And who does it age, other than you? When you start down this path of thinking, realizing the loneliness of your own existence, the loneliness of being you and only you, and nobody else experiencing the experience of being you— when you realize you were born alone and will die alone (In the sense of the actual moments of birth and death)— it seems an odd thing to celebrate and, even more so, to expect others to celebrate. Better to skip quickly over it, laugh it off, drink it off, pretend we don’t care about it at all.
Of course, birthdays are not lonely for children. Because children are usually not self-aware enough to reflect back upon their own existence. They also aren’t skeptical enough to question the motives and enthusiasm of others in celebrating them. All they know is that people seem to love them, always, but most especially on this special day. And what a marvelous thing that is!
Now, hopefully most of us are not loved significantly less now as adults than we were as children. We are loved in different ways but, hopefully, we are still loved. The self-aware part of us recognizes that we cannot go on as we did when we were children. I cannot be like my three-year-old asking, daily, how long until it’s my birthday again?? And I do not want to be like that, despite how charming it is coming from him. But I also don’t want people to just forget about it entirely. I want to continue to blow out candles each year and receive thoughtful gifts and sentiments. I want to know that distant family members and friends remember me every year on a particular day. But to what end? If I am not going to be like my three-year-old— if I am not going to treat my birthday with wild enthusiasm— what is the point of celebrating at all? A meager birthday, a half-hearted birthday, a low-key birthday— does such a thing not just become a bit of an inconvenience?
Children know how to celebrate their birthdays. Adults, generally, do not. Unless they are painfully narcissistic and hedonistic, most adults do feel this weird combination of shame and awkwardness and, if they dig a bit deeper, loneliness about their birthdays. So— are they worth celebrating? And if so, how?
First of all, we have to define what a birthday is. A birthday is not the anniversary of the day God gave you life or created you. That day, or at the very least, that moment, remains a mystery to all of us. A birthday is also not the anniversary of the day you entered the world. As any mother will attest, a child’s physical presence is felt long before the day of delivery. Not to mention all the many babies who never have a birthday but still exist, whether in Heaven for eternity or in their mother’s wombs this very moment.
And so, a birthday is not the anniversary of the beginning of life. To not have a birthday does not mean you did not have life. To not have a birthday means you did not get to share it with others.Now, of course, our relationship with our mothers begins before our birthdays— but it is intensified to an indescribable degree at the moment of birth. Mothers love their unborn babies and they often do “know” or sense certain things about them. But there is just so much that they don’t know. This is the real sadness of miscarriage— the not knowing— the not getting to love more.
No, a birthday is not the beginning of life. But, in many ways, it is the beginning of relationships. It is beautiful, indeed, to watch my children and my husband talk about and talk to our unborn babies but I now know from experience that this kind of communication via a pregnant belly is a somewhat “forced” thing. Forced is not always bad. We force ourselves to do all sorts of good things. But it is still forced, nevertheless. The love is all one way. We love that unborn baby because we should love that unborn baby. Not because it coos and smells like Heaven.
But once the unborn baby is born it does coo and smell like Heaven. And then it smiles and giggles. And then it decides to crawl at a time totally different from it’s older brother. And then it walks and stumbles and talks and tantrums. And then it has a favorite color and a favorite song and a favorite animal. And a love language. And a Myers Briggs type. And a favorite flavor of birthday cake.
Birthdays are worth celebrating precisely because they should not be lonely things. We do experience birth alone. But this appalls us. It horrifies us. We balk at the loneliness of it and that is why we gather round close, ready to catch the little writhing crying thing as soon as it appears because we don’t want it to be alone. We want it to feel loved, immediately. The mother wraps her arms around the baby and the father comes close beside. Soon grandparents and aunts and uncles come flooding in. Flowers and cards and can I hold him? Everybody wants to see the baby. Everybody wants to know the baby. Everybody wants to love the baby.
Isn’t that a wonderful thing?! Isn’t that worth celebrating?!
But how do we celebrate when we are no longer babies or children? How do we celebrate when we are already well-known and loved? Known and loved, perhaps, for many years. Known and loved for so long that perhaps we have forgotten how well we have been known and loved?
I propose that a birthday be a day of thanksgiving. Thanksgiving for relationships. Thanksgiving for the love we often overlook. Thanksgiving that we are not alone.
Bilbo Baggins famously gave gifts to others on his birthday. I think there is fabulous wisdom in this practice. I do not bemoan gifts given to the birthday person (and I don’t think Bilbo would either!) But maybe it should go both ways. Everyone looking outward, rather than inward. We shower the birthday person in love and affection but the birthday person in turn showers others. I’m so glad you’re here, says one, and I’m so glad I get to be here with you, says the other. In the same way that a wedding anniversary should cause us to reflect on our relationship with our spouse, a birthday should cause us to reflect on our relationships with everyone. We should thank our loved ones for their presence, year after year, keeping us company as we suffer and thrive and age and die. We should thank God that we are not alone. That He made the world full of others, other than us. That He ever decided to take Adam’s rib and give Eve a birthday. That He ever decided it was “not good for man to be alone.” That He ever decided it was not good for me to be alone, at that lonely moment of birth.
Because a birthday can be a lonely sort of thing. But that’s really only if you only think about yourself. A birthday should not be a day to think about grey hairs or numbers on a scale or accomplishments missed or days remaining. A birthday is a day to think about everyone else. It is a day to be thankful that you get to be with everyone else. Thankful that you get to love everyone else. And that they, in turn, love you too. Even though you may no longer coo and smell like Heaven.