Birthdays — why do they make us feel so vulnerable?
Everyone is weird about their birthday. Some people hate it: hoping others will forget it and count down the hours until it passes. Some people love their birthdays: they plan elaborate events to celebrate it, bask in the attention that they receive from adoring friends and family, and are sad when the day finally comes to an end. Then most of us are somewhere in between — wanting to be celebrated, feeling a little embarrassed from the attention, and yet enjoying being noticed. While there is a wide difference in how we celebrate our birthdays, I’ve come to realize that most of us are actually having a similar experience of vulnerability that we rarely share with others. And for those of us celebrating our birthdays in quarantine we can’t escape it. There just isn’t enough distractions to keep us from it.
The marking of our birth can bring about so many underlying anxieties about our purpose: why was I born? Am I living the life I want? Am I taking it for granted? Do people love me? Do I love myself? Am I like other people who turn this age? Am I closer to accomplishing my goals? Do I even have goals? Who am I?
These anxieties of course loom over us throughout the year, but there is something about having to confront your birth — your existence — that brings them to the forefront of your mind. It’s in acknowledging our existence that we have to confront the uncomfortable feeling of whether or not our life is worth existing. That is a profoundly vulnerable feeling that I think many of us experience every year — I know I do.
Today I am 31 years old. I’ve had thirty birthdays before this one and each one was an experience of vulnerability, but for most of them I couldn’t identify this feeling. For example, when I was younger, I constantly was disappointed by my birthday and it did not matter how it was celebrated: I had grand parties, surprise birthday parties, destination birthdays, and so many amazing gifts from incredible people. Yet, at the end of the day I was disappointed, and I felt this feeling of emptiness that I could never quite explain or fully feel. And since I couldn’t identify how I felt I instead rationalized it: not enough people wished me a happy birthday, the party wasn’t exactly what I wanted, people didn’t really express how much they cared about me, etc. etc. But I would argue now that the “perfect” celebration would have never erased that feeling.
As I turn 31 years old during a global pandemic, there is no debate, this is the weirdest birthday I will ever have and there are few opportunities for my friends and family to really celebrate it with me. But I realize now that those details aren’t all that important at least for confronting the ways in which this day makes me particularly vulnerable. While gifts, parties and good wishes can distract from this feeling — they can’t erase it or make it better. The only thing that can is facing my truth about my existance and being vulnerable enough to embrace it.
So how do I feel about existing today?
Scared. I feel like there are a lot of people who count on me and the thought of me not existing one day makes me worry about the well-being of others.
Concerned. Why was I lucky enough to be born during a time period and in a country where I have more rights than other women? What am I doing to make this outcome less of a chance and more of a reality for others?
Excited. There are so many things I want to do, and I have the good health, resources, and imagination to do them.
Rewarding. I can’t believe I’ve made it this far as a first-generation college student and as a woman of color.
Disappointing. Shouldn’t I have accomplished more by now? How many hours of my life have I lost to Netflix?
Painful. How have I experienced so much pain and trauma by this age? How have others endured it? Why is there so much struggle in this world?
Demeaning. I feel so small sometimes and unable to have the impact and the reach that I want to have on the world.
Mesmerizing. How can my body, such a fragile form of life be so strong, resilient and powerful? How do my lungs help me breathe every day? How is my brain capable of such complex thoughts and feelings?
Loved. There are so many people in my life who love me unconditionally and are not afraid to let me know that. Maybe they don’t always love me the way that I want, but they always do in their own way and I’ve learned to accept that.
Nervous. I don’t know how long I’ll live, and I don’t know what is in store for me in the future. That uncertainty makes it hard to plan and make decisions.
Hopeful. Things are a little better today than they were thirty years ago. Things can change and people can lead that transformation.
Powerful. I’ve seen what I can do when I put my mind to it.
Weak. I’ve also experienced my limitations and realize I can’t do everything, especially alone.
It’s ok to be vulnerable — and our birthdays can give us that needed space if we are willing to take it. The truth is I’m not sure we will ever be able to live up to the kind of existence we want to have in the world. But I think that may be a good thing, because it means we are always growing and striving to be something bigger than ourselves. It’s wonderful when our friends and family gesture to us how much they appreciate and love us, but those feelings will leave just as fast as they came if they don’t validate the feelings that we have about ourselves. And the only way we can come to terms with those is if we take these courageous moments of vulnerability to ask ourselves the hard truths and then to let ourselves accept the answers. So, I hope our birthdays can be one of those opportunities — I know mine currently is, and while it is a little scary and uncomfortable, I can tell you it doesn’t make me feel empty. It makes me feel whole.