The Problem with Birthdays

I hate to be a party pooper, but we’ve got birthdays wrong. We should blow out the candles on this tradition, and light a new way of thinking.

I’ve never shared my birth date on social media or told people at work when it’s my birthday because it doesn’t matter. Despite what our culture teaches us, it’s just another day. I haven’t accepted gifts for decades, and the last time I had a birthday party, Ronald Reagan was president. I don’t need any new material possessions or people gushing over me. The only gift I want is a sea change in our culture.

Most of us don’t need a birthday celebration or gifts. I find it odd and cringe when adults announce their birthday like they discovered a cure for the flu. They soak in trite wishes that have no meaning except the artificial meaning our vapid society assigns them. I’d like to throw a cake in the face of such trivial exchanges and live in a society where people deflect attention away from themselves instead of sucking it in like a Kenmore vacuum.

If you want to do something memorable for someone, do it organically when it’s in your heart, not because a fabricated holiday jolted you. We need fewer people responding to Pavlov’s bell, and more people bucking norms. If you give gifts, you may consider options that don’t increase a carbon footprint.

Why does it matter how people celebrate birthdays? First, the current approach feeds the humility-starved narrative that we should celebrate ourselves for existing. Second, it supports the materialism industrial complex. Third, it preserves our zombie culture where not enough people think critically to determine if their actions match their values. Finally, the excessive hoopla that accompanies birthday celebrations while billions suffer serves as a reminder that we can do much better as a species.

Most of us don’t need more attention, but billions of suffering people and animals do. People need clean drinking water, malaria nets, low-cost medical devices, and iodized food. Wildlife needs their habitat saved, and marine life need their ecosystem preserved. Examples abound. People have the power to impact change in these areas. They can start by redirecting attention away from themselves toward the causes of our time.

We have birthdays in reverse. Instead of celebrating ourselves, we should show our gratitude for surviving another year in a world filled with brutality and misery. If you’re going to celebrate, consider giving to others or volunteering for the day. Imagine the impact we could make if people redirected money and time spent on birthdays to improve the world.

I recently read a headline that Will Smith skydove for his 50th birthday. Original stuff. I wonder why he felt the need to tell anyone. Why would anyone care? It was a lost opportunity. Instead of telling us what he did for himself–putting his life at risk for entertainment or to promote a movie, he could’ve used the day to set an example for millions to follow by volunteering, announcing an initiative to benefit those in need, or donating to a cause.

I don’t believe in blindly celebrating people because a calendar changes from one day to the next. We’re capable of a higher standard. We should celebrate people when they do good in the world by helping those in need in their honor. When I want to celebrate someone, I send them this link or this link, and I ask them to select a charity on the list, and I donate in their name.

Many people already view birthdays as an opportunity to give. While they comprise a fraction of the billions of people using social media, you can find them deflecting attention away from themselves and using the opportunity to share fundraising pages to raise money for their favorite causes. I’m deeply grateful and inspired by these selfless, focused, and results-driven advocates.

Like so many ideas before they’re widely accepted, this one too may seem improbable, but we can do so much better as a society. As these habits are learned, so too can they be unlearned. It’s time to blow out the candles on the parties and gifts for those who don’t need them and light the world with giving. Let’s improve our culture and live out our full potential as human beings.

Every person and animal is born into different circumstances. The playing field is unequal from birth–impossibly so for so many people and animals–and it’s the moral obligation of our lives to level it as much as we can. Birthdays, if you wish to use them, provide an opportunity. The adage doesn’t say, “To whom much is given, many birthday parties are expected.”

I wish more people would challenge the orthodoxies of our time. I wrote this poem to help light the way.

Birthdays, want no presents, open your eyes,
See the pain around you, listen to the cries.
Those who need nothing, you need realize,
You can do better on this day–rise!
We need a sea change; it’s the only way,
Giving on your birthday makes it a better day.
Hark, hark! I hear,
The new birthday is near.

6 thoughts on “The Problem with Birthdays

  1. I totally agree! Stop the gift giving and putting the spotlight on yourself. I laugh when people on Facebook announce their birthday and wait for all the birthday wishes to pour in from their “friends” (most of whom they have probably never met). GIFT GIVING – let’s also stop giving gifts at Christmas, Hanukkah, wedding showers, baby showers, house warmings, and on it goes. Companies have brainwashed people into being mindless zombie consumers. If people don’t like you because you don’t feel the need to buy them a gift then they are not real friends. I think many people who buy gifts at religious holidays don’t even remember or know what they are celebrating – they just follow the society norm.

    1. Too funny, Denise. It’s the old “let me say thanks to everyone for wishing me a happy birthday so I can show more people it’s my birthday and get more birthday wishes” trick. What does a birthday wish mean from strangers anyway? It’s all so meaningless–just another day on a calendar. My favorite is when people write: “It’s my birthday today! Happy birthday to me!” Oh, humility, where have you gone? Truly surreal.

  2. Wow, you sure have given me a lot to think about regarding birthdays. For years I have found it ridiculous on any occasion (especially Christmas actually) to have to shop for someone and pick out something for them, wasting mental energy, lots of time and often money on something they likely don’t need, don’t want and won’t use. It’s just so indulgent and non-contributing. Thanks for the insightful essay.

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