It’s My Party
One of my Latin teachers told us the Roman calendar was the worst Roman custom after slavery. You can verify for yourself here if you actually continued reading after I implied I’ve had not just one, but multiple Latin teachers. If you’re still reading after parsing that baffling explanation of a Roman year, hey! Good luck with the essay you’re supposed to be writing. As the article notes, though most of us have done away with the accompanying ritual sacrifice (I haven’t, but I’m a traditionalist), the birthday celebration is one of the few calendrical affairs we’ve got in common with the Romans.
More recently birthdays have encompassed a variation of celebratory rituals, including but not limited to unwillingly participating in a psychologically disturbing entertainment service, suffering a brutal avian attack, and starting a blood feud between your inanimate possessions. Though I’ve never been party to any birthday this dramatic, I have seen more than one friend of mine celebrate with a slice of nondescript malaise. Lest ye cast doubt, I’d like to note that, yes, I am aware my teenage years comprise fully one third of my life, and that this might skew things. To combat this, Adam asked me to “substantiate” the “sad birthday phenomenon” with “stats.” Here, here, here, and here, are various Reddit threads about a lot of people who get sad on their birthdays, which is pretty substantive. If my personal experience and Reddit aren’t enough for you, someone who is not me made this which is sad and relevant, and also I just asked the person sitting next to me right now if she ever feels sad on her birthday and she said yes.
Age discrepancies and varying birthday quality make this phenomenon more interesting than it seems on the surface. There are almost certainly successful people who have been sad at their wildly fun-filled surprise 25th birthday parties (Candace, probably). However, in my quest for “statistics” I found that many wikiHow-like sites (and wikiHow itself) suggest a fear of ageing or general disappointment with the quality of one’s life — or birthday — causes this birthday depression.
WikiHow suggests “celebrating you,” to combat the Birthday Funk but I think this is closer to the real problem than it is to a solution. Everyone has a birthday, but your birthday will never mean as much to everyone else as it does to you, even though the people around you are hopefully following wikiHow’s above directions. That’s okay; you already know this if you’re not a delusional narcissist. Even still, understanding the relative importance of your birthday does not preclude feelings of isolation. Birthdays remind us that we have realities separate from those around us, even the people we cherish, love, and understand the most. Though this idea is intellectually easy to conceptualize (again, unless you are a delusional narcissist) it is sometimes a hard thing to feel.
While birthdays are a fairly concrete marker of time (does it get more concrete than “fetal expulsion,” I mean?? [that link is a cartoon diagram, I promise]), we all have ways of thinking about the passage of time more abstractly. Some may be shared markers at different places, like the discovery of a first grey hair, or a marriage. Others may be more personal: the death of a particular loved one, or the transition between two specific careers. Either way, these things help us think about our lives in an organized way. Long stretches of anything are easier to digest when they’re broken up into segments, especially when you can’t see so far ahead.
These little heuristics also make it easier to relate to other people’s experiences, which is apparently important. I don’t use “apparently” in an entirely flip way; I more mean that sometimes I am still surprised by how much better it is to share both happiness and sadness with another person. Measuring the length and depth of your life, consciously or unconsciously, by occasions familiar to almost everyone has a comparable effect. Learning someone else thinks and feels similarly to you is one of the small wonders of life; it follows that remembering your essential separateness is unsettling.
These abstract temporal boundaries are much subtler than birthdays. Birthdays are visible and participatory. No one sees you meting out the years of your life by the houses you’ve lived in, or the dogs you’ve loved. Because birthdays are centered around you in a vacuum, they can spawn a stark solitude. Here melancholy can fall, in the place between you and everyone else. Not only are the shared insights I wrote about above sublime, but they’re validating; they allow us to feel entitled to how we feel. See above where I spend an entire paragraph listing people agreeing with me about sad birthdays just to justify writing this.
A friend in high school told me once about an invented word sonder he’d read about in John Koenig’s Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows (on my next birthday I’ll be turning 14, cutting my own bangs, and asking exclusively for Hot Topic gift cards, thanks for asking!). I used to think about sonder on the drive to high school, imagining every person driving with me on the same stretch of highway with their own schedules and problems and Latin teachers (yeah? no?). Surveyed from a particular perspective, it’s strange that noticing the humanity of others can be alienating instead comforting. Perhaps this speaks well of us; you only care about failing to connect with someone if you are curious enough to try. At the very least, we’re curious enough to keep trying with the Romans, and they can’t even count the days of the week properly.