Today is my birthday.
When I was little, this was easy to say. I would tell strangers it was my birthday. I felt like everyone in the world should know it was my birthday! My mom and I would plan my parties months in advance and I had no shame about the amount of thought and time and effort I put into them. But as I grew older, I felt self-conscious about my birthday. Not because of my age, but because I had learned that it was selfish and prideful to draw attention to oneself.
So I tried not to draw attention to my birthday. And what happened? Ironically, I became much more selfish and prideful. Because even though I wasn’t telling everyone it was my birthday or expecting gifts or inviting people to a party, I was still expecting people to celebrate it just as fully. I still expected people to organize a party for me. I still expected everyone to know it was my birthday. In fact, I remember walking the school halls mentally coaching myself, don’t tell anyone and see how many people remember (as if it were a test or something!) Of course, many people always remembered my birthday and celebrated it. But, inevitably, some people would forget about it or neglect to do anything special. My false humility did nothing for me at that point. I set myself up to be hurt. They should know better. They don’t really care.
I eventually learned that that was an absolutely miserable way to spend one’s birthday. And there was nothing virtuous in it at all. Sure, I wasn’t drawing attention to myself, but I was just as selfish in my mind and, worse, I was dishonest. I acted like I didn’t expect anything but I totally did. And then I blamed other people for not knowing my expectations.
There are some people in this world who naturally don’t like attention. I’m not one of those people. I like attention. I like presents and phone calls and parties. I like people to give me those things, and I like to give those things to other people. There is nothing wrong with this. Certainly, there is something wrong with being more focused on oneself than on others. There is something wrong if I value my birthday more than my husband’s birthday. There is something wrong if I make my birthday about materialistic desires. There is something wrong if I prefer to receive than to give. But there’s still nothing wrong with taking joy in receiving love and being celebrated by those who love you.
The way to be humble is not to pretend you don’t want anybody’s attention or love. In fact, for most socially conscious adults it is far more humble to admit you want attention and love! Because that admits vulnerability. And by admitting vulnerability, you open yourself up to being publicly hurt or shamed. It’s usually safer and easier to hide in the pretend shell of oh, my birthday? Yeah, it was yesterday. But don’t worry about it. I don’t really care. For some people, this statement might be true. But for me, I know it would be a lie.
This morning, when I came downstairs, my almost three-year-old ran up to me, is it MOMMY’S BIRTHDAY TODAY?
Yes, I told him, it’s Mommy’s birthday.
He proceeded to run around in excited circles, hooray!! hooray!!
Then he ran over to his little brother and leaned over his swing to announce, Nicholas, it’s Mommy’s birthday!! Like I have a birthday, Mommy has a birthday! Alright? Hooray!! It’s Mommy’s birthday!!
After that kind of joyous announcement, am I supposed to just shrug it off? No, Joseph- your birthday matters, but adult birthdays don’t. Or do I just patronize him, yay Mommy’s birthday! and then turn around to the rest of the world like it’s no big deal?
Or, do I adopt his joy? And say, thank God for this beautiful day! Today I let out my first cry. I was held for the first time by loving arms. I was called by name. I opened my eyes. And each year this day has marked the end and beginning of a cycle of growth as I evolve more fully into the person I’m meant to be. If not for this day, I wouldn’t have the wonderful life I have and I wouldn’t be a part of other peoples’ lives. Thank God for life and thank God for me and all the blessings that have come to me and through me! Now, let’s celebrate!
Is that so difficult and horrible to say? No. Especially not with the infectious enthusiasm of my son backing me up. Birthdays are meant to be celebrated, not meant to be sulked through. And that doesn’t mean we are selfish. It just means we are human.