Last month I went to my first Philosophers’ Cafe. An event where attendees are encouraged to informally discuss a topic from a philosophical point of view. The topic was “Why do we celebrate birthdays?” and it inspired me to write this letter to notify my friends of my stance.
We are socially networked here today, so that I may notify you that I am not someone who remembers birthdays. I have felt a kind of disregard for the obligation of remembering birthdays for some time and have realised that it is time to share this information about myself formally.
Let me make it clear that I mean no offence. I love you all. I do wish that you do enjoy the day designated for the celebration of you and not always you alone each year. I am ever so glad that you were ever born and that you are still alive. I just probably won’t remember to tell you so on that particular day.
Because really, I wish you goodwill – everyday.
It is nice that sometimes Facebook reminds me and then I will send you a little howdy to let you know that I am thinking of you. But I think of it more as a handy reminder system of who is still on my friends list. Of those who I may not see regularly but do still think of fondly. It’s this birthday thing, the philosophy of it that I’m not sure I’m down with.
Many years ago, our lives as humans were hard. We toiled daily to survive and gained sustenance only from the food sources we worked hard to produce. Our lives were shorter, disease was often deadly and mortality was at the forefront of our existence. And so it was that we counted the years that we survived; every single number being of immense importance to us.
We were children once too. The original birthday is a beautiful celebration of a new life. The anniversary birthdays of the early years are important because children get gifts that adults wish they could play with. Children grow so quickly and the difference from one year to the next is so clear, so apparent that we must celebrate it to try to hold it there, to pin it in place right before it, and childhood is lost. We celebrate the milestones of childhood and adolescence because we pine for our own. Thus, if you have a cute small thing in your family, and Facebook, or my mother reminds me of its birthday, I will thoroughly enjoy bestowing a gift upon it. But once the appearance of ageing plateaus and milestone birthdays grow to be about a decade apart (from 22 onwards) what need do we have of birthdays?
Speaking of my mother, she is someone who acknowledges birthdays. I have developed a theory that makes her birthday-remembering history make sense. As a newlywed, she moved from Victoria to a small mining town in North West Australia and began to breed amongst other things. Being isolated from her family, she would mark all their birthdays off on a calendar every year and dedicatedly send cards. This was not unusual, of course. I have many birthday cards from family and family friends from the first decade of my life. Mum kept each and everyone for me. Birthdays functioned as a way for her to be sure that she kept in touch with everyone important to her.
Obviously, the internet has changed this, making it easier to feel linked to friends and family with a few instant sentences. But at the same time, whether it is a generational thing or not, I have a more casual approach to holding on to friendships. I’ve always been of the mind that the most wonderful friendships are the ones that you may neglect for some time, but that you know, whenever you get together again, it will be fully charged and ready to go just as you left off, all cylinders firing. And for this assurance, I don’t rely on particular dates.
Birthdays do fulfil a social function of bringing people together physically, and without them my poor mother would have to battle even harder for our regular family dinners throughout the year. Plus, birthdays are the perfect excuse to have a celebratory drink with friends.
My sister is very attached to the celebration of her birthday. I realised that this was to continue when she planned a celebration for her 22nd, after already having the typical big deal of a 21st. I try to understand why it matters. We all have birthdays. No one’s birthday is particularly more important than anyone else’s, yet why the egotistical practise of yearly self-acknowledgement? Doesn’t the fact that everyone has one, and they even double/triple/etc up, kind of nullify the importance of one’s own? One possible explanation is that without mortality as a major factor until later in life, birthdays might function to make us feel significant in our crazy, infinite world. Every single person can feel their own significant presence on Earth for just one day. And maybe that yearly reminder will inspire us to treasure life that day, and maybe even the next.
For me though, at this point in my life, the passing years are an unwelcome reminder of how far I haven’t come. But since you know me, you know I have a tendency towards pessimism, so this will come as no surprise. For a positive spin on my pessimism (ha), lets say it’s a side effect of aiming higher than is always practical to reach.
Maybe it’s gifts you want? It’s not the gift giving part of birthdays that’s a problem for me. Gift giving I really enjoy. When I find something perfect for a particular person, it makes me all warm and happy. But then there’s no escaping the societal obligations that turn that joy into anxious consumerism. If I get one sister something wonderful, I will have to find something just as amazing for other family members. If I get you something that appears to be very expensive (not very likely), you could feel obligated to get me something of the same value. And what a downer it is that giving could have such an effect.
I have met two particular people in my life that were determined to memorise birthdays. And I link this habit with other qualities they shared, to conclude that I am wary of trusting people who remember everyone’s birthday. Sure, when someone remembers your birthday you feel special, really special. Then you realise that you aren’t special because remembering birthdays is their thing. And the way they doled out friendship was the same. They knew how to give you a false sense of security in the friendship, just when you were feeling all close and cosy and ready to divulge your secrets, you realised that that was how they treated everyone. It’s like the gimmick of a car salesman who constantly addresses you by name. You’re going to end up duped.
So, in summation, if I don’t remember your birthday, it doesn’t mean I don’t love you. If I find a gift that makes me think especially just of you, I may save it for your birthday, or I might give it to you tomorrow. If you have a birthday cake at our shared workplace, I will most delightedly eat it. If we go out for drinks I may even buy you a shot. But if you don’t work with me or invite me to your party, and I don’t log into Facebook that day, I will probably forget.
Please take this letter to wish you a Happy Anniversary of Your Birth when the day comes and an ongoing Happy Existence.
PS If you should like to acknowledge my birthday, all wishes will be welcomed. Especially those that come in the post!