Google defines birthdays as, “The annual anniversary of the day on which a person was born”. Not a complicated definition, but it carries weight. For instance, I turned twenty this week. What does that mean? I have absolutely no idea. What does turning any age mean? Does it mean anything at all? So many questions with a multitude of answers – but in actuality the answers we get depend on how we choose to interpret and act on reality. Certain things can carry meaning that touches us to the depths of our souls, while others mean nothing. How do some things come to have those extreme meanings, and all measurements in-between?
Society has been relatively successful in training most people to evaluate meaning by marking time. More often than not, it all comes down to birthdays – age specifically, birthdays just happen to be the day on which people choose to assess their lives. The problem lies here, in life assessment. It doesn’t always lead to the most pleasant states of mind. Questions like, “What am I supposed to be doing now?”, “Did I fuck everything up already?”, or “Am I actually happy?” come up quite frequently when people think about their lives. That last one is the most concerning and quite coincidentally is usually at the root of most problems revolving around one’s actual happiness. Life is a continuous stream of decisions that eventually culminate into what your life is, whether you like it or not! We are all victims of time and consequence. So what do you do when the calendar swings around to that day of the year again?
We go through life slowly, measuring our lives one day of each year. As we grow up, most of us form certain expectations (and by ‘us’ I mean the ‘us’ society molds us into). We work to have ‘the life’ that we have somehow been constructed to see as ideal, maybe even what we want. The question is, how are we supposed to know what we truly desire after all these years of other people telling us what we should want?
Expectations start early. When you’re five, you start kindergarten. This is only the beginning. If for some reason a child is a little odd or has some difficulties, parents, family and friends start stepping up to judge – behind closed doors of course. Next is your driver’s license. Where I come from, if you don’t get your license when you turn sixteen it’s because you were somehow deemed unable to handle the responsibility – whether it be physical driving capability or ridiculous tendency to do idiotic things when behind the wheel. Then you’re eighteen – awesome, go buy a pack of cigarettes because now the government says that you are now officially old enough to make your own decisions, unlike yesterday when you were only 17 years and 364 days old. Next milestone is twenty-one. Like eighteen (but OBVIOUSLY very different), twenty-one is the age when the government says you are responsible enough to be trusted with alcohol. This is the point where society starts expecting you to act like an adult, but people still assume you will screw up a lot in your first few attempts to interact with the “real world”.
It is on your actual birthday that you ask yourself what the hell you were supposedly doing all year long when you should have been doing ‘xyz’ in order to accomplish some significant, possibly absurd, life goal. This life goal is surely attached to the age you’re turning, assuming of course that you are one of those people who has fallen victim to societies malicious manipulations. There are many expectations that society has, and therefore most people have of themselves, that are to be met according to age. Let me lay them out for you with a touch of sarcasm: Between eighteen and twenty-one (that’s me!), you should probably graduate high school, start college, have a good group of friends, a significant other, a part-time job (unless it’s summer, then you need a full-time job to prepare you for the real world – after college that is), and know what you want to do when you graduate. It is also around this time when you should be out partying and having fun, but not too much. Don’t ever do anything stupid even though those things are the ones you’ll remember when you’re older. You should also have a good GPA while you are in school, a solid job, and all those other bullshit extracurriculars you love so dearly. Only do something if it looks good on your résumé. You should be doing this, you should be doing that, you should, you should, you should. God forbid you actually enjoy a place you are paying over $20,000 a year for.
Alright, but in all seriousness, during and after college (or somewhere around that age bracket) is when things get interesting. There’s a couple different types of people: there are the people filled with optimism about their ability to change the world, and others who are more involved in finding someone to spend the rest of their lives with. Nothing is wrong with either, and these two personalities often are intertwined into one. Nonetheless, this is the point when birthdays start to serve as a hourglass: the time needed to find someone slipping away while every individual grain of sand falls into place creating the reality that the future becomes. This can be looked at in a positive or negative light – most people choose negative. But I am happy to say that negativity most likely stems from societies expectations. I am happy because this is something you can fix! Don’t be one of the many that limits themselves to what society has set for you. Realize that everyone is, in fact, different – no matter how cliché that actually sounds. No one leads the same life, so it is a waste of time trying to conform. The faster you come to this realization the sooner you can let go and live your life in a way that makes YOU truly happy.
If I haven’t made it clear enough already, birthdays are the singular day each year when most people are forced into a reality check. We take a long hard look in the mirror to see if any significant goals were reached this year. What ensues depends upon how we decide we feel about ourselves at this point. Some people are devastatingly disappointed or bored to tears with their lives. This is the point when they realize they have no sense of self. However, this realization is a good thing. They are now free to find their true self and mold themselves into the person they aim to be, finally!
The bottom line is this: you are not constricted to the road map society has laid out for you. Cue identity crisis – existential crisis, that is. Become your own person because you have no other option but to define yourself with what you know now.
Where do you go from nowhere? Insert ‘there’s nowhere to go but up’ quote here. This is when you figure out who you are. Scared of your complacency, you want life to be amazing, not just satisfactory. You don’t what to look back on your life thinking, “oh, that was it”, or even worse, trying to convince yourself it was great. There is only one life – so this is your time.
Yeah, this is all great to think about, but how do you actually do it? Let go of what people think about you and what you think you know. Nietzsche’s words “Down with all the hypotheses that have allowed the belief in a true world” have never rang more true. Most things aren’t what they seem, and it is sad that many people waste their lives going off appearance of what is or what they wish it were. Don’t waste time wishing life were better – you are, in fact, making it worse with those wishes. Thinking about what you’ve done and what you should have done does nothing but make you crazy, and we don’t want that – not in that sense anyway. Never pretend to be something just to seem normal, if anything strive to be abnormal; avoid mediocrity.
How does this philosophy relate to birthdays? Don’t pay attention to what a birthday (or anything for that matter) means because it doesn’t mean anything until you let society limit you. A couple of days ago, before my birthday, I was someone who let society limit me. That was until I realized that everything means nothing – until you string the memories together, that is. If you have the same society-manufactured-string as everyone else, you many as well not have one at all. It was with this in mind that I decided to celebrate my birthday. During my celebration, I had a moment where I felt what could only be described as what I drunkenly coined to be ‘complete shit and utter bliss’. I let the idea of insignificance and my power to find meaning free me. I was finally happy because I made my own moment, not one pre-constructed – but one of my own creation. I finally found how to give my significance to my life. The secret is not avoiding any attempts to live ‘the life’; it won’t happen if you try to fabricate it. My birthday was definitely not what I expected, on several levels. Reflecting back I realize that I have somehow managed to have a few good friends that discovered this so-called secret before I did. Actually, they are currently sitting here in our living room screeching to some god-awful musical that makes me what to pull a Van Gogh. But, I suppose this is another memory I will add to my string. I’ve learned that it is these types of nights that don’t automatically define someone’s life. Moments like these mean something because you let them – not because they are necessarily important. Giving meaning to a series of moments is what life adds up to.
In my book, the key to sanity, maybe even happiness, is to celebrate your birthday (and every other day!) with the intent to create a memory. Make your birthday another memory, not a depressing day that reminds you that you don’t measure up to some ridiculous imaginary standard. That is what you should aim to make life – an endless string of entertaining memories. In the end, life is meaningless until you take the initiative to give it definition.