It’s strange how birthdays change meaning over time. Growing up, your birthday is the best day of the year — presents, cake, everyone’s attention on you. You have a party with all of your friends. You feel special and important.
But isn’t that all true when you’re grown, too? The fanfare is all the same, and yet we feel bad about our birthdays. They fill us with dread. Another year older just means we’re getting further away from our youth and closer to the tough, painful years of elderliness. And I suppose this is true, but why do we turn so pessimistic about our birthdays when we used to be so optimistic?
When I turned 20, I had a mini existential breakdown as I realized that I had been on this earth for two decades and felt like I had nothing to show for it. If 20 years had passed that quickly, would I just blink my eyes and be 40, still with nothing to show for it? It was that classic quarter-life crisis in which I wondered if I was even on the right path, if I should be doing something different — and immediately — and if I had squandered some valuable time already.
Yes, it was dramatic. But that’s how I tend to be when it comes to this stuff.
I turned 23 yesterday, and it was the first birthday I’ve had in years that everything went as I had hoped it would. My problem usually isn’t existential dread, as it was when I turned 20; rather, I set unreasonable expectations for the day and end up getting let down.
I was burned the hardest on my 21st, when I signed up for this half marathon in Brooklyn. The dirty secret of runners is that we run races for the ego trip. Imagine: tons of people lining the streets, cheering you on as you demonstrate your incredible athleticism and then lauding you for hours and days afterwards. You receive a goody bag with a cool t-shirt and a bunch of other crap, post your race photo on Instagram, and eat whatever the hell you want. It’s all about you.
So a half marathon on my birthday? Perfect. My family had never seen me race, so I thought they could cheer me on with the other spectators and bask in my glory afterwards. Not so. The race turned out to be a total scam. The organizers sent us an email a week beforehand saying that the sign-up was low, so the race wouldn’t be officially timed. I didn’t heed the email, and so I showed up on my birthday, a somber drizzle starting to form, to find only a half dozen other racers and a race organizer with a stopwatch, an orange plastic cone, and a pack of plastic water bottles. That was the fanfare.
The other racers decided right then and there to either forego the run entirely or at least run less than the original 13.1 miles. But dammit, my whole family was there at Prospect Park in Brooklyn, I had trained for some weeks, and I had planned on running for two hours that day. And so, I ran all alone as my family stood there watching me lap the park four times, the sky darkening, the air growing heavier and colder. I fought tears the entire time and cursed myself for having this foolish idea that I could run a fun race with hundreds of others, our families and friends hoisting their signs and hooting and hollering, and cross the finish line to some chocolate milk, prizes, and pride.
Once I finished the run, I had this anger and disappointment that was simply unshakeable. I could not smile as I shoved classy Brooklyn thin-crust pizza down my throat and drank my first legal beverages. I even tried going out with a friend at NYU afterward to turn it around, but it was useless. We went from Manhattan back to Brooklyn just for me to feel lonely around a bunch of strangers. You ever feel lonely in a crowd of people? Imagine being in that same crowd, on your birthday. It really exacerbates that loneliness. I threw in the towel; birthday ruined.
I wish I could say this was a one-off. But it’s one of my fatal flaws. If things start taking a turn, going to an unexpected — and unpleasant — place, I have great difficulty shaking it off. It’s happened to me on several birthdays, Christmases, and similar celebrations. I hate it. And I ended up having to re-write the story. In the case of my 21st birthday, I’ve just decided that November 18, 2017, just wasn’t my birthday. Really, my birthday was November 16th, 2017, when I went to Brooklyn Steel with my older brother, Fletcher, and saw an incredible Saint Motel concert, preceded by drinking his homebrewed IPA and eating tacos for dinner at his local shop. We even had possibly the best hot chocolate I have drank to date at the concert venue. To me, that was my 21st birthday. It was much, much happier, anyway.
Since my 21st, I’ve worked on drastically lowering expectations, though I still feel disappointed when I do so. This year, for example, I accepted that my birthday couldn’t be what I really wanted: to just be at home with my family. I wasn’t going home for the day — that’s ridiculous — and I’m not going home for Thanksgiving. So for the first time, I was not going to celebrate with my family. I was bummed, but I couldn’t do anything about it.
Given that all of my housemates are in school, I was pessimistic about them being free to celebrate, either. I decided that if no one was available, I would pull a Jess, from New Girl: I’d take myself to the movies. On Jess’s birthday, she explains that all she does is take herself to the movies on her birthday, and has done so for years. Like me, she explains that she had historically set unrealistic expectations for her birthday and felt constantly let down, so this was her way of avoiding disappointment. I thought it was a pretty decent tactic.
Luckily, I didn’t have to take myself to the movies. My housemates were more than willing to go out for food and drinks. One of them got me a birthday cake. My coworkers knew it was my birthday, despite me not even working for two full months with them. I fully expected the day to pass just like any other with them, but instead, they gave me cookies, took me to lunch, and wrote me a couple cards. I got to leave work early and go climbing for a couple hours, and actually sent a couple boulder projects. It was overall a very pleasant day, and I felt loved and happy and calm. Yes, talking to family on the phone was still hard and forced me to swallow a lump in my throat. But overall, setting expectations as low as I did, I survived and actually enjoyed myself yesterday.
Yesterday proved to me that birthdays don’t need to be extreme — extreme happiness, extreme existentialism, extreme dread. They can just be a solid day, with a bit more dessert and attention than usual. I think that’s ultimately all I’ve ever really wanted, but in years past, I decided I should want more, and so, I expected more. But there are plenty of days that are just as, if not more exciting than your actual birthday. That Saint Motel concert with Fletcher, for example. The day I ran my first marathon (not alone, officially timed). Starting a new job. Seeing your sibling graduate from college. There are so many moments in life worth celebrating, so why should there be so much emphasis on our birthdays?
Yes, it feels like we’re getting older on our birthdays, because that’s when the number of years we’ve been on earth officially increases — by one. But we’re getting older everyday. It’s just a number. It’s just a day. We make of it what we want.
And all I want on my birthday, from here on out, is a craft beer with friends and chocolate in some form. That’s what I got yesterday, and that’s what I needed. And the best part? I can have that on many other days besides my birthday, too.