I write this column on my younger brother’s 20th birthday—happy birthday, Zach! For me, naturally, this occasion of my younger brother’s aging out of adolescence has led, with predictably anxious self-centeredness, to reflections on my own increasingly ancient status within a youth culture with which I still sort of identify: I’m old enough now to recall clearly, as a true conscious memory, the entire lifespan (or at least of what I saw of it) of a 20-year-old man, from the memorable day of his birth until now, and what does that mean for me? This birthday isn’t about Zach; it’s of course about me—if my little brother is a grownup, that means that I’m really, really a grownup, and no longer in the earliest stages of that condition.
There is no larger waste of time than this premature mortality-related handwringing and no surer way to increase the rate at which we age than to obsess over it, lamenting each passing second as it passes instead of doing something with it. This particular stupid form of pensiveness is my own curse, but it’s my impression that we all suffer from birthdays, our own and others’, and the self-mourning they inspire can start quite early even for better-adjusted humans: at the age where we realize we’re not prodigies in any particular field, or that we’ll never be professional athletes, or that we wasted our high school years or our college years, or that we’re slipping into an ordinariness from which recovery seems less and less likely as time goes on.
Any concept of a (very improbable) world without birthdays is purely a mental exercise, but here is the central fact of my argument: no birthday after 21 makes people feel better about themselves than they already did. In fact, if the drinking age were moved to 18, the childhood excitement of birthdays would end even earlier.
After 21, the official progression toward adulthood has finished: no more exciting benchmarks or milestones, only the premonition of decay. But, in fact, the storyline imposed upon us by our birthdays—by the ideas we associate with certain ages—is false. At 22 you are just beginning to spread your wings; the most important growing-up of your life is still ahead of you, all the good things of the world (of which you currently know nothing) still await, and you haven’t even begun to plateau, let alone decline.
What if, after 21, we stopped counting our birthdays; lost track of our ages; stopped identifying ourselves by how much as time had passed since we entered the world; let our bodies absorb the ensuing years without any self-limiting preconceptions about how we ought to feel at 30, 40, 50, or 60; and, refusing to judge anyone else on the basis of his or her age, allowed other people to live their lives how they wished, without any point of reference, rather than obeying some preset timeline that dictates which behaviors belong to which decades of a person’s life?
Wouldn’t the world be a better place without the line of thinking that creates ideas like “I’m 30—I better get married” or “I’m 40—it’s too late to start a new career?” or “I’m 50—have I wasted my life?” If we stopped marking birthdays, we could still do some quick math, if we felt so inspired, in order to figure out how old we are, but it might not feel like the defining feature of ourselves.
The counterargument, I think, is that people enjoy birthday celebrations, which isn’t a very good counterargument because it isn’t true. People enjoy celebrating and being celebrated—they enjoy parties, and they enjoy attention, and they enjoy gifts—but the birthday itself is the worst part of a birthday party, and sometimes a strong enough source of angst to spoil the pleasure of the whole event: what should be a moment of recognizing the value of yourself becomes an occasion for self-doubt, of wondering whether you’ve really accomplished anything in the past 365 days or whether you’ve simply aged another year with nothing to show for it (and it will always feel like this, no matter what you did).
The good thing about birthdays is that they compel us to celebrate our loved ones: it makes sense for each of us to have, once in a while, an official day whereupon our friends and family members are reminded to tell us and show us how much we mean to them, how much our presence in the world matters to them. But I’m not sure this needs to be tied in any way to our aging—our parties would be less depressing if we instituted a system in which such a day were simply assigned to us at random every eight to ten months, for example, with advance notifications automatically sent out to everyone we know.
My grandmother’s Polish husband celebrated (according to Polish tradition) his “name day” once a year—the feast day associated with the Catholic saint with whom he shared his name—rather than his birthday, and he seemed to find our alternate tradition here a little silly.
“What’s there to celebrate about getting older?” he’d say (or something like it). In fact, aging might be a good thing or a bad thing, or it might not mean anything at all—but a birthday isn’t aging: if your birthday is Dec. 9, you’re not older in any discernible way when the clock strikes midnight than you were at 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 8. Rather, it’s the idea of aging, a dramatization of it. We’ve convinced ourselves that it matters and have made it into theater, a play we force ourselves to stage every year, and if we tried to opt out, our resentful aging friends wouldn’t let us. People who don’t celebrate their own birthdays are viewed universally with suspicion—it seems antisocial, but I think they might be onto something.