“Don’t tell anyone” I whispered, sheepishly. “But Saturday is my birthday.”
I know I'm not alone in approaching my birthday this way. It’s gotten to the point, in my early 30’s, where I only tell people for two reasons. The first is necessity: for example, that I need them to cover me at work, a special day requiring a special albeit confidential favor. The second is that we’re close friends and I might, if I’m feeling jazzy, actually want to perform some kind of low-key ceremonial celebration, in the form of a quiet dinner or sharing a yoga class. If you’re an empath also, you might find birthdays especially hard to cope with. The expectations of having something to show for all these years of life seem only amplified by all the attention focused solely on you, neither of which is very welcome in my personal world. So I prefer to lay low, eat cookie dough for dinner to indulge my inner child, and call it just another day while I grapple with the number itself.
And this year is a doozy. Friends are calling what I have the ‘birthday blues’, but I prefer to call it straight-up disappointment. Should I have accomplished more by now? Should I be more published? Richer? Pregnant? Skinnier? If in age I should have acquired the answers to these questions, then add it to the list of reasons to feel more gloom than bloom on a birthday. Why we still place the pressure on those younger than us to set such arbitrary goals based on ages they know nothing of (career by 25, kids by 30, you get the picture), I’m not totally sure. All I know is, as we get older, mile markers like birthdays and anniversaries of the professional and personal kind become more daunting than they do celebratory.
Not meeting a life-goal deadline can feel akin to a broken heart. The weight of it can feel immeasurable and yet indescribable. Even though the younger 'me' didn’t really know what she was talking about when she set those goals, or what she’d really want or even be capable of in the cusp of her 30's, it feels no less painful, no less embarrassing, and could be no further from reason to throw myself a party.
So I’d like to formally propose and alternative. While I can’t convince everyone of my generation and those before it to stop putting the unrealistic undertone on college kids to plan out their whole lives, I can reframe this very instance for you, if you're feeling the same way, birthday or otherwise.
What if rather than looking at all the things we haven’t accomplished by any certain age as failures, we stop looking at those unmet goals altogether (no superpower is enough to convince me certain decisions and lazinesses wasn’t failure) and instead focus on what we learned in their stead.
Mind you, this doesn't suggest trying to solve or soothe one doomsday thought with another; in these alternative the thoughts don’t attach. So it's not a "I didn't get a headline in Cosmo by the age of 30, but at least I got a headline elsewhere" approach. There's no but-atleasts. One is never at the least of themselves, even at our lowest points (which, I'll reference later are usually the most enlightening, enriching and empowering in the long run). In this exercise, one thought completely replaces the other. So rather than zeroing in on what we don’t have and didn't do, we stop all thoughts before they go into that laundry list of the kids yet unborn and the bestseller yet unwritten and the million yet to be deposited. Once that thought has ended, we instead focus on what choices we made that we never might have predicted given our arbitrary goals, and how those benefited us for the better.
To open the floor: while I didn’t get married in the time I thought I might, my singlehood helped me to I travel alone to places I never thought I’d see. While I haven’t been as prolific as a writer I'd hoped to be, and my freelance options are anything but consistent, I’ve dug to depths in myself and my work I wouldn't have otherwise, some of them hilariously and humiliatingly painful, that cracked me open as a writer in such unpredictable ways. That I've chosen to not write as much in quantity and instead dove head-first into bouts of extreme depression means that I write of more quality, more humanly and more honestly. All because of that pain. All because of that digging. Often, all because of the failures and rejections that forced me to do so.
Rather than being ashamed of my non-existent retirement fund or my very hungry savings account, I could instead relish in the fact that lack of money, even being so broke in my 20’s that my boyfriend and I lived off bread and two-buck-chuck for an entire week, no longer scares me. There’s nothing to fear. While I may not feel very responsible, it no longer has the power to make me feel unworthy or unsuccessful because I have now seen first hand a kind of success that has no monetary value: that of facing fears and reclaiming their power. That of taking chances and going for broke, literally. And I wouldn’t have traded a single beer bought in the east village, a single pastry eaten while walking Mexico city, or a single movie ticket to the art house theaters in all those metropolises for anything, especially not the reassurance of money sitting dormant in my accounts.
So the difference is "instead" rather than "at least". What we learned, grew through, and discovered instead of that goal, and giving up the attempt to convince ourselves we 'at least' got about half way there. Instead, we arrived fully to this moment, and who we've become. The ill-set goal is much less important than this beautiful, even if messy, current result of who you and I are now. Best of all, the goal doesn't neccessarily need to be nixed from the list. Instead, that holy word, we can re-open ourselves to be surprised at how, and of course when, it will arrive for us.
So while birthdays may bring the blues or bright, shiny balloons, or even ironically both, one thing they’ll always bring certainly is the marker of time, and hopefully with it the gift of wisdom. Wisdom to change perspectives when needed, to slow down even as the years fly by, to see that we can - even as we get older - indulge in the carefreeness, and the lack of pressure and expectation now that we should have in younger years.
Funny that it should happen that way: that as youth we hold on to too much when we should be so relaxed, and in aging we learn to finally let go. Let go.
In what ways am I defining myself that are weakening my sense of worth based on unrealistic or uncontrollable factors? (If you’re ever using the world ‘failure’ in your inner monologue, take a deeper look and ask yourself this again)
How can I change my focus from negativity and self sabotaging to self soothing and self discovery?
Can I be more playful, more curious and more relaxed in my approach to my own timelines for life goals?