Tomorrow is my husband’s birthday. It’s not a big birthday, but it’s the birthday before the big birthday, which is sometimes an even bigger birthday than the big one. If you know what I mean.
And he hasn’t said a word about it.
I’m ready. The presents are wrapped. We’re planning a nice weekend. There will not be cake, because we don’t eat cake anymore, but I’ll make a pie I know he likes.
He’s very, very quiet.
Does he want to open presents early? No. He doesn’t. He changes the subject.
This is birthday behavior when you’re over 40. It looks quite a bit different from birthday behavior when you’re little, when opening presents a day or two early would seem a very good idea, indeed.
But somewhere along the line, things change. We can get awfully quiet, if not pensive, if not morose about the speed bumps we call birthdays and how we drive over them faster and harder every year. At this age, we say our number with a different inflection. For instance, this April snow we’re having. We wake up on the 8th of April to an inch of snow and say, “It’s snowing!” with exactly the same awe and sense of unfair play as when we say, “I’m 42!” Or 62, or 82. We are stunned. How did it happen? We were just standing here a minute ago, and we were 22. And now?
And what have you done? What have you accomplished in all this time? So you sit down and make lists, avoiding your real accomplishments, and listing instead your real and imagined failures and shortcomings. Or that’s what I do. I don’t know if that’s what hubby is up to, but why should he be any different from the rest of us?
Most of the time, those lists are drawn by expectations that belong to your culture, your family, your fantasy life, a book on success you read in your 30s, a plan you laid out in your 20s. Something your grandfather expected. An idea of what makes a meaningful life that you were given or drew for yourself at some other time. A goal unmet.
If you have the luxury of this kind of thinking (meaning you live in a place where you can govern your own destiny, set your own goals, consider meaninfulness), you may be hurting yourself with it. That’s a bizarre irony, isn’t it? Having the freedom to make ourselves miserable with our own ambitions, whether they are ambitions of achievement, power, beauty, riches, happiness. Though many of us need so much less than what we have, we aim for more, always adjusting our aims higher, so that inevitably we fall short of our own expectations, somewhere along the line. These freedoms do make us luckier than the next guys, though. They do.
And then it’s our birthday, we take stock, we beat ourselves up.
You may be too smart for this already. But maybe not. It’s common among all people, but I think those of us who struggle with obesity and have an overdeveloped habit of beating ourselves up already are particularly good at this birthday thrashing.
Now, I don’t think it’s possible to completely avoid this cycle. I think it’s human, nearly inevitable. If you can find a way to avoid it, please write a book and share your method. But if you must flog yourself, may I recommend that you pick another day. Say, a day 6 months away from your birthday, and let that day be the “beat myself up” day. You know, mark it on the calendar, let everybody know they should leave you alone, and spend THAT whole day berating yourself for not having more, being more, succeeding more.
Reserve your birthday as a celebration of your life. Make a different list. A list of the things you could have never expected and never planned for that have come along and landed in your life just because you were there and lived to see it. Think “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and be George for the day. Look around and see your place in the world, and what you get to have because you hold that place. It could be the snore of a good dog. A great tree in your yard, a book you got to read, a sunset you gasped over, a favorite song or album (or CD), someone you met. Someone you love. The smell of a baby’s head. Someone who loved you, the greatest miracle of all. A good cup of coffee, a high score on a video game. Whatever it is, celebrate it. Make a list. Read it over and over. Add to the list every year.
I’m going to go force that man to open his presents now, and give him a kiss, and bake him a pie.
Happy Birthday to you,