The Trouble with Birthdays.
At a sound therapy seminar the question was asked, if a spaceship was approaching earth, what would be the melody the extraterrestrials would hear first? The answer was Happy Birthday To You, sung every day to 20 million people : the sound of the human race marking time.
Despite the celebrations, many people find birthdays depressing. We’re supposed to be happy, but if no one remembers we feel unloved. Even if someone remembers, the expectations never quite live up to the impression created around birthdays when we were children. Then we were growing up and eager to become independent. Now birthdays signify something else – life slipping away. We may end up feeling great disappointment – I haven’t achieved what I said I would by now. I’m stuck on the same treadmill as last year. I’m as old as I once thought was totally past it. An awful lot of people don’t enjoy having Happy Birthday sung to them. It makes them feel slightly stupid; surprise parties can strike others as even worse. Birthdays continue to come in quick succession, and meanwhile time is running out.
The birthday song only goes back just over a century. Back at the turn of the 20th century, it really was a cause for celebration if you reached, say 50, since life expectancy was only 45. Even getting past 5 was an achievement when 30% of all deaths in 1900 occurred in children under that age. But now what are we celebrating? Anyone can get to 50, 60, or even 80 these days. You just have to not die. And other people insist on reminding us of our elderly status, – “Oh my God mom you’re half a century old, four times my age!”
Nathalie felt like that this year. “On my 56th birthday I was full of fear. I knew I only had four years left until I was 60. I could remember my gran when she was 60. She wore a hairnet, had dentures, wore an overall and shuffled around the kitchen. I could remember her bending down to stoke the fire.” Any given age conjures up a picture of all our relatives who were that age before us. We see the social archetype of that age, and often it doesn’t look good. We think, oh if I’m 72 I must look like that woman on the bus who used to mumble to herself when I was on my way to school.
Derek recalls, “On the morning of my 65th birthday I had a tight feeling across my chest. How could I be a pensioner already, on the last strait leading to death? How could that be when all I’d spent my time doing so far was to work to pay bills? When did I get to actually live? Everyone was congratulating me and I felt sick with fear. Is this all there is, I kept thinking? Terrified, yes, that’s not an exaggeration.”
Birthdays are sometimes about how desperate we feel because that things may be about to change for the worse, and yet we are stuck in the horror of a racing scenario. That scenario includes all those who have ended up worse for wear at age X. We tend not to think of the success stories. Ages have associations in our minds: 68 is the age my cousin got cancer…79 is when Uncle Bob passed away. The unspoken message to our body is, if I share their genes I must be living on borrowed time. A ledger appears in our heads – click…the countdown is triggered. It is as if thinking about the worst cases makes us feel we are at least preparing ourselves for disaster.
Albert Camus once said that after a certain age every man is responsible for his face. As the years pass, we may feel scared we will no longer recognise ourselves in the mirror. Or that we’ll recognise our father or mother instead. Or that the world will no longer recognise us for who we really are. Those who have relied on their looks all their lives may even feel they have overstayed their welcome. “When I was young,” said Latifa, “I thought old people were another species, and a defective one at that. Now I want to say to the young, getting old is like falling asleep on your school desk and waking up and finding you’re suddenly 75 years old. You panic. What happened? I’m the same person, so what the hell happened?”
Nature has always allowed humans to live way past the time of youth, and so yes, we should be here – on that score we can relax. Fearing old age, resisting it, can have a contradictory effect – what we resist persists – and if we continue to approach our birthdays with fear, that fear will eventually show up on our faces and we will have a self-fulfilling prophecy on our hands. We cannot flee the monster of old age, but we do not need to surrender to it either. Instead, we stand firm and confront!
Unless we live on a desert island it is impossible to avoid birthdays. One way to overcome the fear of the passing years is not to acknowledge them. As other people will insist on birthdays, instead of celebrating the decades clocked up, a birthday can be simply a celebration of our day of birth. We got here – so hurray for that. Avoiding constant repetitions of our age – even if others insist – can prevent the phenomenon known as stereotype embodiment, as can remembering that people experience fear at all ages over 29. Remember when we turned 40 or 50 and panicked? We thought our lives would be over, and yet…. Old age is always 15 years older than we currently are. It is not the passing of time that we are accumulating. It is the passing of experience.
“I’d rather die than grow old,” laughs Marleen, a model in her 30s with long black hair and green eyes – a real stunner. “For me, my body is my lunch ticket. I rely on it in my social life. I’ve just gotten used to being pretty. To age, for me, is a disaster.” Around the dreaded day, let us take a moment to sit with ourselves and explore our deepest fears. Do we fear the ugliness of old age? Do we fear being dependent on others who have neither the time nor the inclination to meet our needs? Let us examine the person inside the body. Can I still be happy sitting in an older body?
Claiming agelessness also means that even if one day our bodies show signs of our long time on earth, our inner selves will be rich treasures to draw upon to stay grounded. If I have relied on my beauty until now, can I imagine hilarious laughter with friends while looking (in my view) old and wrinkled? Can I be happy without my good looks? We are enough, with or without physical attractiveness. A life lived permanently at age 25 would be a thin sliver of a life, for we are also here to experience being 50, 60, 70, 80 and beyond. The consciousness inside the physical vehicle is able to inhabit a body of any age…many believe it has done so already countless times over repeated lives.
Those of us who want to stay ageless must stop counting the years. There is no real time, no passing of days and months, just a single stream of experience. We pass through the years like a ghost through a wall. We do not fear the passing of time, for we stand outside it. Age has no power because my inner being is sufficient. One day physical flesh will be irrelevant. A youthful face is a pleasant side effect but not our main goal. We seek spiritual mastery and for that years of experience are necessary. We seek knowledge, wisdom and above all joy, available to all irrespective of outer state.
So let’s celebrate having got this far, and celebrate having been born. We claim agelessness, but if our bodies show the passing of time, we’ll be ready.
And for those extraterrestrials, birthdays are indeed meaningless, since a year is only valid on earth, and time is elastic in space.
When we hit a dreaded birthday, let us repeat: I have no affinity with this age, for I am eternal.
How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?
Answer? “Like many people my age, I am 28 years old.“