Actually yesterday was my birthday, but most everything that I’m going to say now I was planning on saying yesterday so that counts. In fact, this isn’t the only way that the title of this blog is a bit off – as its very nature suggests an attitude that I will be speaking against.
Why do people celebrate birthdays? Wait, before you answer that, let’s take a step back and ask a broader question: why do people celebrate anniversaries?
I’m often amused when I see couples, young people especially, celebrating their two month anniversary, their once month anniversary, their two week anniversary. I smile because the briefness of the relationship means nothing in the grand scope, as it’s likely not indicative of the potential success of their future relationship. But it’s really not up to me to judge the significance of this anniversary. By celebrating their anniversary, they are saying that the time they have spent together was meaningful.
It doesn’t really matter what sort of anniversary is celebrated, it is celebrated because the duration something lasts is has value to someone. Nobody is likely going to celebrate the anniversary of the placing of the park table that I am currently sitting at, but the anniversary of a historical building, on the other hand, may be commemorated.
Why do people celebrate birthdays? Is it not because one’s life has value to this person and the people around them? Although one doesn’t have much of a choice of whether to live or not – it’s either that or die – we celebrate the duration of one’s life anyways because the life is important.
But do we need to celebrate birthdays in order to celebrate life? Don’t we do enough celebrating of life as it is? After all, in North America we celebrate each other’s lives during holidays like Christmas where we exchange gifts, Thanksgiving where we share meals, as well as smaller holidays such as Family Day which we use an excuse to get together and spend time with each other. Do we not adequately celebrate the fact that we are living by indulging in pleasurable things on a regular basis?
The thing that sets birthdays apart from other holidays is that it’s exclusively a celebration of self. Even though all one did to have a birthday is to do what came naturally (live), we find it necessary to reward oneself for doing so by expecting a full day that is by right, ours.
Admittedly, birthdays are a convenient day to celebrate a person’s life, especially in the context of allowing other people other than one’s self to celebrate the life. However, in the culture that I grew up in, it seems as though we are raising our children with the mindset that one must celebrate one’s birthday, that is an intrinsic right earned by being alive. In addition to this, people on their birthday must be subject to special treatment on their birthday.
A worthwhile thought is that the way we are to treat people on their birthday – politely, kindly, respectfully – is the same way we should treat people regardless, right?
Here’s where I introduce my Christian beliefs. As a Christian I believe that my life belongs to God: not my whole life minus one day. When Jesus is asked what the greatest command is, he answers with this:
Matthew 22:37-40 – Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind.’ And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Notice how Jesus doesn’t command people to love ourselves? This is because the love of self is the natural state, no one has to be commanded to do it. It is assumed when Jesus says “love your neighbour as yourself” that we already love ourselves.
There’s nothing wrong with loving life and be grateful for the one God has given us. But the attitude portrayed when one celebrates a birthday is “this is my day, and so I should be allowed to do whatever I want to do.” This goes against the attitude of humility that Jesus wants us to have.
With my facebook status for my friends the day before my birthday I thought I was being witty when I tried to pre-emptively halt the inevitable barrage of “Happy Birthday.” It was an effort to re-direct the attention away from me and encouraged people to say something nice to another random friend instead. However, after many people ignored my request to leave my facebook wall alone, and I do not look reproachfully at them. They were only doing what Jesus commanded and loving their neighbour as themselves by way of sending me a well-meaning message.
The way someone celebrates a relationship anniversary likely involves doing something loving for that special someone. What if we looked at birthdays in the same way? What if we saw our lives as not just as something that is ours by right or as our achievement but as an ongoing gift from God? How would this prompt us to celebrate it? Whatever the celebration entailed, it would show an appreciation for God and his love for us, which often implies setting our own personal preferences and desires aside.
Yesterday when I spent my day at work and with my family, I wasn’t really fully putting aside my own preferences for the day. I mean, sure, I would have liked to sleep in and do what I’m doing right now, spending time by myself outside in beautiful weather while doing what I love: writing. Yet I also wanted to spend my day in such a way that my presence would be appreciated by others. So before you think that I’m just a religious party-pooper, recognize that the closer you get to God, the more you love him, the more likely you will actually be simultaneously be doing something that you enjoy when you spend your birthday living for God.