Summer is a time for birthdays – at least it seems that way among those I know. Summer is an energy-filled season, a vibrant time to remember and celebrate birthdays. I do believe that remembering birthdays is important; a birthday is among the saddest times to be forgotten. However, much as each of us needs to be remembered by those among whom we live, birthdays – remembered as well as forgotten ones – can be a difficult time for many. It’s a matter of perspective.
For most of us, two modes of perception underlie birthday celebrations. Some of us respond to both at once. The most common practice for birthdays is counting. The perennial thought behind the party is, “How old are you?” Each year represents a different state of maturity. Children are eager for their birthdays. For children, birthdays mean a year older, a year closer to the freedom of adults, a year more of increased ability, and, of course, presents. Once adulthood is achieved, birthdays represent a different prospect. Each birthday represents another step forward towards diminished ability, diminished health, diminished financial well-being, diminished independence, and, in our culture, diminished respect. Progress may be slow in that direction, but for most, the progress is inevitable. The focus is on counting. Even the language says that one IS that counted number. These birthdays are bittersweet.
Another context from which to perceive birthdays pays no attention to counting. Birthdays are to rejoice in the existence of the person being celebrated. Birthdays are to acknowledge the uniqueness of the individual, and to recognize that he or she makes a large or small contribution to humanity and is valuable and valued. From this viewpoint, the question, “How old are you?” is irrelevant. A birthday celebrated with this attitude is a time of joy.
Some think that birthdays should be replaced with name days, the day on which an individual receives his or her name, or, in some religions, the day of baptism or reception into the religion. Theoretically, this makes it more difficult to count. In actuality, one can count as easily from a name day as from a birthday. Name day or birthday, what matters is from what set of assumptions the day is observed.
Using counting to identify a person has an obvious fallacy. Although each number purports to correlate to a specific level of maturity and set of skills, the fact is that no individual’s level of maturity is exactly the same as everyone else’s, young or old. Children walk and talk at different ages; some people barely graduate from high school at 20, while others are ready for college at 14. Some people remain emotionally boys and girls well into their 40s or beyond, while others are taking on extraordinary levels of responsibility in their teens. Some people are in nursing homes in their seventies; others remain healthy and active into their 100th year. The idea that because one IS a certain number (our language reinforces that idea) one is therefore described by the set of characteristics attributed to that number is ridiculous. A number is simply a number; it is not the arbiter of one’s being. In addition, there is a more subtle effect to counting. Counting indicates that one is not good enough. Children and young adults are not good enough because they are not yet full adults; adults are not good enough because the numbers indicate increasing deficiency.
How much better it is to simply celebrate each other! How nurturing it is to remember each other at least once a year and shine attention upon each person’s unique existence! This is a very special way to bring – as often as possible – a positive orientation of joy into our world. It is simple but powerful way to support each other and contribute towards a kind and vibrant world.
Let us hold birthdays as a time of joy and remember always that each person comes bearing a gift to be recognized and celebrated. Each of us is valuable and deserving of appreciation. The ones who can find and acknowledge the sparks of value in others are the most powerful of all.