The Problem with Birthdays

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

I have never shared my birthdate on social media or told people at work when it is my birthday because it does not matter. Despite what our culture teaches us, it is just another day. I have not accepted gifts for decades, and the last time I had a birthday party, Ronald Reagan was president. I do not need any new material possessions or people gushing over me. The gift I want is a sea change in our culture.

Most of us do not need a birthday celebration or gifts. I find it odd and cringe when adults announce their birthdays like they discovered a cure for the flu. They soak in trite wishes that have no discernible meaning. I would 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 an industrial vacuum.

If we want to do something kind for someone, we should do it organically when it is in our hearts, not because a fabricated holiday jolted us. We need fewer people responding to Pavlov’s bell, and more people bucking norms. And if people insist on giving gifts, they might consider options that do not 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 accompanying birthday celebrations, while billions suffer, reminds us that we can do much better as a species.

Most of us do not 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 needs their ecosystem preserved. Examples abound. We have the power to impact change in these areas. We can start by redirecting attention away from ourselves toward these causes.

We have birthdays in reverse. Instead of celebrating ourselves, we should show gratitude for surviving another year in a world filled with brutality and misery. If people are going to celebrate, they might 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 went skydiving for his 50th birthday. 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 have 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 do not believe in blindly celebrating people because a calendar changes from one day to the next. We are 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, 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, we can find them deflecting attention away from themselves and using the opportunity to share fundraising pages to raise money for their favorite causes. We should be grateful and inspired by these selfless, focused, and results-driven advocates and follow their lead.

We can do so much better as a society. As these habits are learned, so too can they be unlearned. It is time to blow out the candles on the parties and gifts for those who do not need them and light the world with giving, which will improve our culture and enable us to live out our full potential.

Every person and animal is born into different circumstances. Sadly, the playing field is unequal from birth. It is the moral obligation of our lives to level it as much as we can. Birthdays, if we wish to use them, offer an opportunity. The adage does not say, “To whom much is given, many birthday parties are expected.” Let’s challenge every orthodoxy.


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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