Exactly 17 years ago today, I was celebrating my birthday for the very last time. It was a surprise party my mother organized a few months before we emigrated to Canada.
I remember being asked to leave my fifth grade English class early so the teacher could distribute the invitations to all my classmates. My mother took care of all the details — even making sure there was a large truck parked in front of the McDonald’s patio, so I wouldn’t see all my friends already there waiting with balloons and gifts.
When I turned around, all my classmates jumped up and yelled, “Surprise!” I can still picture myself walking timidly to the birthday chair sitting at the head of the table, with bold letters plastered at the top: 11 years old. Until today, I’m still impressed that a bunch of 10- and 11 year-olds kept this entire shebang a secret. Did my mom threaten them? I always laugh at the thought of what she could have said. “If you dare say a word, I’ll be sure you never get to step into a McDonald’s ever again!” And back in the late 1990s Romania, McDonald’s was the coolest thing in town. My mom could pull some strings.
No one knew I was leaving for Canada (my family kept it a secret at first), and I was too young to understand the implications of a permanent move, especially one that was a continent and an ocean away. But my mother knew how difficult it must be for a child to lose his native friend group. I would only come to understand years later that this party was a celebration of my birthday, just as much as it was also a covert send-off.
Throughout my adolescence, I would be asked year after year if I wanted to celebrate. Luckily, I always managed to avoid any more large gatherings after that surprise get-together. My family finally came to realize that parties provoked more panic than excitement — and why would you want to invoke anxiety on someone’s ‘special day’? Turns out, I didn’t really enjoy being at the forefront of any celebration, much less my very own.
Over the years, I’ve stopped professing my birth date, especially in my professional circles. Amidst the potlucks and team dinners, I always felt a sheer terror that one day my cover will be exposed, and my turn will come to be at the centre of the room, making a speech that started with all the things I was grateful for, in front of people that I’ve barely spoken to before.
One time, while celebrating a colleague, my boss asked about my birth date unexpectedly. I almost choked on my breadstick. “I don’t think you’ve ever told us!” She protested. As I was deescalating my internal panic, an awkward silence followed. “A gentleman never discloses his age!” I chuckled nervously. “If you refuse to tell me,” my boss threatened, “I’ll have to go to H.R. and find out myself!” She smiled mischievously.
She did find out from the H.R. lady. Aren’t these matters confidential? I thought, half-jokingly, half-terrified. Luckily, my boss was incredibly emotionally intelligent, so she organized a very modest lunch with two other colleagues instead of embarrassing me in front of the entire organization. I also got to pick the restaurant, so I made sure it had a booth available.
Introverts may have an especially difficult time celebrating birthdays. All the spotlight, coupled with the buzz of the day — the loudness, the people, the resolutions, the small talk — can be nothing short of draining. Yet, birthday anxiety isn’t exclusive to introverts. The pressure of organizing a ‘perfect day,’ the interpersonal difficulties of setting up guest lists, the surfacing unmet expectations of the year prior, or needing to face the realities of ageing and our own mortality can be a lot to handle for most. Psychologists even coined an informal term, birthday blues, that relates to our propensity to feel depressed and anxious in the days surrounding our birthday.
As an introvert, I never particularly liked being in the spotlight. That may come as a shock to many who know me professionally, given my background in training and public relations. However, I always remember crashing at the end of the day — and avoiding the after-hours programming beneath my laundry list of excuses. It wasn’t because I was avoiding specific people, but mostly due to my need to be away from all people.
Being an introvert, however, is only part of the reason why I don’t make an effort to celebrate birthdays. Don’t get me wrong — I’ve still accepted invitations to go away for the weekend with partners in the past, or I’ve felt grateful for all the gifts and well-meaning messages received over the years. I’ve even engaged in a creative project where on my birthday each year, I take a photo where I show the numerical value in an unconventional way. What I struggle with, however, is the pressure to celebrate a socially-constructed milestone — that comes packed with ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’ts’ — when so many other reasons for celebration throughout the year get swept under the rug.
Are birthdays supposed to be an all-encompassing commemoration of all the year’s successes? If so, then why is it that most attendees of a birthday party can’t even name one accomplishment of the celebrant for the year’s past? Does the visceral quality of the moment get lost in translation when celebrated months later? Do we even remember the moment at all? What are we really celebrating?
Do we celebrate once a year due to convenience? Or is it because we don’t quite feel worthy and deserving to celebrate the successes of the day-to-day? You may be asking — what if the day is nothing short of habitual? Then I wonder — is the extraordinary more of a reason for celebration than the ordinary? Why do we put off all the times we’d like to celebrate, under the pretext of waiting for that special day to come?
Are birthdays truly a way to show our appreciation towards one another? Or are they only a way to reconnect, especially with acquaintances who we wouldn’t otherwise have reasons to? If so, is celebrating truly about making others feel cared for, or a way to make ourselves feel caring?
Why do we wait an entire year to express our gratitude? And when the time comes, why is it that often, we don’t even know how to show it — offering gifts void of meaning — because we aren’t quite sure of the reasons for expressing gratitude in the first place? Why does customary take precedent over voluntary?
Why is it that age becomes such a focus, a milestone — when time is the only thing that we have no control over, while everything else gets forgotten? Why do we ignore 30,000 days in someone’s life, and millions of worthy moments, to focus only on a few years?
I acknowledge my birthday, yet I choose not to celebrate it because I choose to celebrate moments instead. And preferably, those moments will be honoured in private, with those that directly contributed to their significance.
I choose to celebrate moments because sometimes the ordinary becomes more important than the extraordinary. Doing that extra push-up, continuing to do push-ups for a week straight; making dinner when I didn’t feel like it, noticing I’ve mastered the recipe for the very first time; getting out of bed early when I wanted to sleep an hour more, sleeping an hour more when I deemed necessary.
I choose to celebrate the ordinary because I don’t need specific reasons to show compassion towards others or myself. Buying a rose because I felt like telling someone I loved them, bringing their favourite cheesecake the next day; calling a friend to hear their voice, mailing them a book that made me think of them the following week; booking myself a massage, because I woke up feeling like I needed one.
I choose to celebrate moments, of both ordinary and extraordinary qualities, because celebration to me is a gift born out of a voluntary desire for compassion and connection, not out of a societal obligation.
I don’t celebrate my birthday, because I choose to celebrate any, and all other days. The visceral quality of celebrating a moment, born out of nothing but voluntary intention, transcends any dictated, manufactured reason.
So, happy (birth) day to me, and happy day to you too. I hope you have just as many moments today to celebrate like you had yesterday, and like I did, too, because today will be just another special day, for both me and you. Oh god, it rhymed!