Birthday has always been a sad business for me. Surely you get to feel ‘special’, you get greetings and presents, your friends come to your party – all those nice traditions we grew with, lift your spirit. But something inside always brewed and disturbed me during this time of year.
On birthdays I have always felt somewhat vulnerable. It’s like your life’s convenient insulation – the half-hearted smiles, self-deceit, promises you make to yourself through the year – all of this is lifted, and you are exposed before yourself, as you are: the naked sum of what your life amounts to. And this is an uneasy feeling, because you can’t lie to yourself. You can’t pretend that tomorrow will be any different, that something will change out of the thin air. It’s judgment day, and you are the judge. You have to face the reality of your life, and as “Pink”, the hero of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” finds out, that can be dreadful:
“The evidence before the court is incontrovertible.
There’s no need for the jury to retire.
In all my years of judging I have never heard before,
Of someone more deserving of the full penalty of the law.
Since, my friend, you have revealed your deepest fear,
I sentence you to be exposed before your peers.
Tear down the wall!”
So what is different this year? Why don’t I feel this dread, this restlessness I used to feel? Trying to uncover motivations and reasons hidden in your psyche is always difficult, but in this case it seems to me that I know the answers to these questions.
Essentially, the “birthday neurosis” is an existential issue . You get to pause your everyday routine, and take a honest look at your life. You come to face the fact that you are getting older, but not necessarily happier. That as your life-changing opportunities diminish, your regrets only grow in number. And admitting this can be painful.
But this year, maybe for the first time in my life, I have wholeheartedly tried to deal with the central questions of life: questions of meaning, purpose and direction. I have really tried to cope with the big issues, to find some perspective, some arrangement that would make sense. And I can’t say that I have uncovered any grandiose truths, or formed an enlightened opinion on how life should be lived. But I worked the muscle. I have continually exercised the existential muscle, and what happened was that it responded, as any other muscle responds to exercise: it grew stronger.
If you ask yourself questions like “what I really want to do”, “is this the person I really want to be with”, “do I treat my parents as I would really like to” and continually try to find the answers to them, than when the time comes (and it comes every year at the same time) it’s not going to hit you. Because you have already been hitting yourself with the same issues before, and as a result, you grew more resilient. It’s not a cure, it’s a treatment.
So this year, as my friends ask me how does it feel to become 29, I’ll just laugh nonchalantly and say “you know what? It feels quite alright”. And then someone will surely reply “well buddy, you just wait till next year”.