The Pressing Importance of Celebrating Birthdays
Re-posted with permission from the author.
By John Cuddeback, Ph. D.
John is a professor of philosophy at Christendom College, where he has taught since 1997. He lectures widely on topics including virtue, fatherhood, friendship, and the household.
(Photos below are from Celebration Stadium customers, used as illustrations, not from the author.)
I think we should be more intentional about celebrating birthdays. It’s something we all will benefit from. Especially today.
It’s not that celebrating birthdays is by its nature important for human life. There were societies or cultures where this was not a practice. I do not assert that birthday celebrations are an irreplaceable way of affirming and rejoicing in life. Other cultures expressed such affirmation and joy in other ways.
My assertion is that celebrating birthdays well has greater significance in our current circumstances. Why? In brief, on the one hand we lack contexts and customs that focus on the gift of life, and on the other strong forces undermine our sense of self and the goodness of life.
We might consider that in so many ways we are treated impersonally, as though we are just a number—even for instance if we shop at the same place regularly. (It was already hard when the check-out person became a constantly rotating job; the automated tellers now put a fine point on it.) We are so used to being anonymous, we have become numbed to it. Perhaps it has even become comforting.
This is the world inhabited by our young people. Their devices draw them in and then undermine the very connection they promised. Imagine the betrayal! The voices that should have been friendly tell them they must be a certain way to be accepted. They are constantly challenged to measure up. In all the wrong ways. In ways which either they cannot measure up, or if they do, they forsake their true selves. The dilemma and the isolation are terrifying.
And this is not just the problem of the young. We all face the anonymity, the depersonalization, and the isolation, along with the demands to forsake the better ways of living.
Celebrating birthdays well is far from a panacea or fix-all. But it can be a real humanizing stroke. It gives occasion to say things that need to be said. And need to be heard. It gives occasion to help someone feel the gift of being of human, and more, of being this particular person!
Is this mushy or cheap psychology? Or is it an opportunity to do what is so needed, and the absence of which is so deeply, even while often unconsciously felt.
There are many ways to do it. It certainly does not require following the script of the oft overly commercialized ‘party.’ Particular trappings may or may not be used. What trappings are used can be invested with life-giving affirmation. We do this—whatever it is—because you are you. Maybe we are family, and we were witnesses to the joy of your birth. Perhaps we have come to know you later. But one way or the other, from a position more proximate or remote, we are here to say:
On this day from the bottom of our hearts we thank God that you exist. And though we still must go about our way, today is not just any day. The world would not and could not be the same without you. You are precious, and you are one of us. We love you, and we wish you every truly good thing. Today, and forever. Happy Birthday!
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