Why do we celebrate birthdays? (Birthday-Significance)
We wonder if we have accomplished enough given our age, are we ahead or behind, are we still full of promise or has our time passed us by. These numbers — 16, 18, 21, 30, 40, 70, 80 — take on a life of their own, imposing their own questions and meanings upon us, enticing us or forcing us to interpret our lives according to them.
1. The Numbers: As the years roll by and the numbers grow larger we start to think less of the day of our birth, of our beginning, and more of the diminishing time left to us and our end. If our birthday is meant to commemorate the event of our coming into the world, then it seems that we slowly and almost inevitably lose sight of this event as it is crowded out by other meanings, longings, or regrets. Is the only remaining significance of our birthday then to help us count the years, to help us see ourselves through the social expectations that lend legal or psychological import to certain numbers rather than others?
2. The Growth: We tend to forget that our system of measuring time, our legal system of majority and minority, our developmental theories, while all having very real consequences on our lives, are constructs and generalizations, abstractions that come to shape our self-understanding from the outside, not from the reality of our own existence as a unique person.
3. The Other Way: I would like to consider another way of thinking about the significance of birthdays. I believe that our practice of celebrating a birthday by adding and counting the years, while having some real importance for the reasons mentioned above (as well as others), tends to be misleading because it suggests a misconception about the nature of time and about the relation between contingency and meaning or value.
4. The Time: When we are born and we begin to count our time, we are immediately inclined to think of time as a kind of allotment that we have been given. We tend to think that at birth we are given a certain amount of time — a life-span and a life-expectancy. If we go to the doctor regularly, eat well and exercise, avoid unnecessary risks and unhealthy behaviors, we should live for a long time.
5. The Progress: We tend to think that the arc of our life is pre-given with us at our birth with something approaching an inner necessity. The numbers we use to count and measure our time become the reality that defines life, that shapes our expectations, that provides hope and often leads to regret or despair, simply a fact of life. It follows from this that we can expect a certain progression and take control over it.
1. I suggest the following: A birthday is an occasion on which we celebrate that original event of our birth, not in order to count the time that has passed and speculate about the time that is left, but to remind ourselves that each day is a new gift. The presentation of gifts is a symbolic reminder of this truth. But I do not want to fall into the saccharine cliché that “life is a gift.” Even more than any other gift, life is something that is hard to accept and often a burden to bear.
2. This is a matter of the logical essence of a true gift: In its pure contingency it logically puts the receiver in the position of being un-worthy or un-deserving; we have not earned life, either when it seems too hard to bear or when it seems more joyous than we could have imagined.
3. Abilities: Life precedes and exceeds our ability to earn it or deserve it. More than any other gift, life is not given in response to our wishes; rather it is the purely contingent basis of all our wishes. Thus life is not always what we would have wished for, and it is never reducible to a ‘just desert’. Perhaps we become so concerned with measuring our time precisely in an effort to gain some control over life, to convert it into a calculable good, a controllable and expendable resource or potential.
4. Calculating: Calculating helps us hide the pure contingency of time and of existence. It makes us feel as though we make our time and we deserve our time. But we risk transforming life — and hence all values — into an exchange value, in other words, a commodity. If we think of a birthday as a symbolic reminder of the pure gift that is life — as the incalculable basis of every attempt to calculate a meaning or value — we will not escape from contingency but perhaps we can more fully respect it as an incommensurable value and protect it from the persistent effort to commodify it, an effort which leads inexorably to the relativity all values and meanings, that is, to nihilism.
5. The Gift: Even when life is not exactly the kind of gift we would have asked for or think we deserve, especially then, it appears as a source of meaning and value which can never be reduced to our standards because they are all born from it. Even our confusion and suffering, our longing for more time, are a testament to the incalculable good that it is to be.
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