I grew up in a family of 11 children. We were a working class family with little left over for celebrations after all the bills were paid. Even though birthdays were celebrated, there were no fancy gifts or parties. In fact, after being invited to parties and seeing what my classmates received for their birthdays, I began to dread the annual event. How could I dodge the inevitable question, “What did you get for your birthday?”
To make matters worse, I had to share my birthday with my sister. We weren’t born on the same day—she one day after me—but the scarcity of resources meant only one cake for the two of us. No party, a gift of a shirt or a pair of socks, and a shared cake. Birthdays were painful, not a celebration of my life.
Scrooge’s attitude toward Christmas became my attitude toward birthdays: “Bah, humbug!” If I couldn’t have fun on my birthday, why should anyone else? I went to great lengths to keep my birthday a secret. I regarded with distain those who advertised their birthdays well in advance in order to receive recognition.
As my children marched their way through our lives, I tolerated their birthday celebrations including parties and ostentatious (in my view) gifts. I never failed to add some sarcastic remark about how too many families poured out way too much attention on their children for their birthdays. Of course, I based my reasoning on our wanting to “live simply so that others could simply live,” or that we were not to “be conformed to the standards of this world.” The real reason was, of course, the pain from too few special days in my life.
I hate to admit it, but Facebook began to change my attitude toward birthdays. When I received an outpouring of love and well wishes on my timeline from numerous friends from around the world, I felt honored, humbled, and blessed. Their recognizing me touched me deeply in my soul.
So I started the daily routine of wishing my friends a happy birthday when they appear on my Facebook events calendar. It’s been a blessing to see how people respond to this simple gesture. Everyone enjoys being recognized for their existence. It would seem that no one is too scholarly, too meek, too fancy, too broken, too rich, too poor too young or too old to enjoy receiving a special greeting.
According to the video series “The Vulnerable Journey” by Henri Nouwen, we all existed in the eternal, loving, intimate embrace of God before we were born. Our birth is a short interruption of this eternal existence, and throughout our lives we long for a return to this intimacy and perfect love. We carry in our souls this memory of God which too often gets layered over by socialization in its various forms. We long to re-live this memory of God stamped on our souls.
I believe that by wishing each other a happy birthday, without being conscious of it, we touch each other at our deepest level, where that eternal memory of God resides. We congratulate each other on our quest to embody that memory of God. For a brief moment our true self touches the true self of the other person, and for a brief moment, the veil between eternity and the present is very thin.
Happy birthday! You are eternally beloved of God! Feel God’s eternal embrace, even if for only a brief instant as you hear this annual greeting. Embody God’s eternal embrace as you relate to others.