Tue 18 Nov 2008
Why do we celebrate birthdays? Each year on our birthday we look for some significance. Sometimes it is a social or developmental marker — entering adolescence or middle age, reaching legal majority, reaching the legal drinking age, for example. Often we ask each other, “do you feel any different?” or “do you feel older?” We wonder if we have accomplished enough given our age, are we ahead or behind, are we still full of promise or has our time passed us by. These numbers — 16, 18, 21, 30, 40, 70, 80 — take on a life of their own, imposing their own questions and meanings upon us, enticing us or forcing us to interpret our lives according to them. As the years roll by and the numbers grow larger we start to think less of the day of our birth, of our beginning, and more of the diminishing time left to us and our end. If our birthday is meant to commemorate the event of our coming into the world, then it seems that we slowly and almost inevitably lose sight of this event as it is crowded out by other meanings, longings, or regrets. Is the only remaining significance of our birthday then to help us count the years, to help us see ourselves through the social expectations that lend legal or psychological import to certain numbers rather than others? We tend to forget that our system of measuring time, our legal system of majority and minority, our developmental theories, while all having very real consequences on our lives, are constructs and generalizations, abstractions that come to shape our self-understanding from the outside, not from the reality of our own existence as a unique person.
I would like to consider another way of thinking about the significance of birthdays. I believe that our practice of celebrating a birthday by adding and counting the years, while having some real importance for the reasons mentioned above (as well as others), tends to be misleading because it suggests a misconception about the nature of time and about the relation between contingency and meaning or value. When we are born and we begin to count our time, we are immediately inclined to think of time as a kind of allotment that we have been given. We tend to think that at birth we are given a certain amount of time — a life-span and a life-expectancy. If we go to the doctor regularly, eat well and exercise, avoid unnecessary risks and unhealthy behaviors, we should live for a long time. We tend to think that the arc of our life is pre-given with us at our birth with something approaching an inner necessity. The numbers we use to count and measure our time become the reality that defines life, that shapes our expectations, that provides hope and often leads to regret or despair, simply a fact of life. It follows from this that we can expect a certain progression and take control over it.
Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. In his short meditation “On Old Age,” Seneca deconstructs our preconceptions about time and existence. He writes that as he had reached the point of being undeniably ‘old’ he had gotten into the habit of thinking about his life with regret and despair — regret at the loss of promise, opportunity, youth; and despair at the thought of approaching death, of the little time left, of the decay of his body. But then he reminded himself: young men ought to think of death just as much as old men. Death is no more pressing for the old then it is for the young. Each day we wake up, he writes, is a new gift, purely contingent, and should be accepted with the same kind of joy as our first. In other words, time is not a portion, span, or quantity that we can expect and expend, it is a pure gift and as such it is absolutely contingent. No matter how healthy we try to be, or how conscientious we are about doctor visits, nothing we do can guarantee that we will still be alive tomorrow, and the fact that we are alive right now cannot be attributed to anything we have done in the past.
I am not making an argument in favor of reckless disregard for our health and well-being! If we did not practice good habits and try to develop our potential as much as possible we would progressively undermine our ability to enjoy our lives and live with dignity. But at the same time we should not fall into the illusion that we are the agents who have sufficient power to sustain our own existence. Descartes comments on this in his Meditations when he argues that at every instant the existence of a finite being is dependent on something beyond it, something greater than it, without which it would perish. To believe that I alone can preserve my existence once it has been give to me is to believe that I am able to constantly re-create myself, to produce at each moment my own existence as a causa sui. But just as our birth is an event which thrusts us into the world — without our having asked for it or played any role in making it happen — each day we wake up, each moment of our life, is given to us anew as a gift which nothing we do could necessitate. I call it a gift because it is arrives gratuitously; because it comes to us not from us; because it comes to us not as a reward we have earned, like a paycheck, but as a contingent fact that we accept rather than will. As Sartre makes so clear, our being is contingent, it is de trop, ‘too much’, more than makes sense. While we may have a moral right to life and political right to life, we do not have a metaphysical right to life — in other words, I cannot legitimately demand that I deserve to come into being and I deserve to exist for another day. I can, and ought to, say to any other person that they have no right to take my life; and I must remember that I have no right to take my own life. But this is precisely because it is something handed over to us that exceeds our logic of exchange, value, reward and punishment. In fact this gratuitous gift of life is the basis upon which we are able to love and respect (or condemn and contempt as the case may be) anything else — without the gratuitous gift of life we would not be able to wish for anything, love anything, value anything, or demand anything. Far from being an object whose value and meaning we determine, it is the absolute source of our being able to appreciate anything at all.
Given this insight, what then is the significance of a birthday? I suggest the following: A birthday is an occasion on which we celebrate that original event of our birth, not in order to count the time that has passed and speculate about the time that is left, but to remind ourselves that each day is a new gift. The presentation of gifts is a symbolic reminder of this truth. But I do not want to fall into the saccharine cliché that “life is a gift.” Even more than any other gift, life is something that is hard to accept and often a burden to bear. This is a matter of the logical essence of a true gift: in its pure contingency it logically puts the receiver in the position of being un-worthy or un-deserving; we have not earned life, either when it seems too hard to bear or when it seems more joyous than we could have imagined. Life precedes and exceeds our ability to earn it or deserve it. More than any other gift, life is not given in response to our wishes; rather it is the purely contingent basis of all our wishes. Thus life is not always what we would have wished for, and it is never reducible to a ‘just desert’. Perhaps we become so concerned with measuring our time precisely in an effort to gain some control over life, to convert it into a calculable good, a controllable and expendable resource or potential. Calculating helps us hide the pure contingency of time and of existence. It makes us feel as though we make our time and we deserve our time. But we risk transforming life — and hence all values — into an exchange value, in other words, a commodity. If we think of a birthday as a symbolic reminder of the pure gift that is life — as the incalculable basis of every attempt to calculate a meaning or value — we will not escape from contingency but perhaps we can more fully respect it as an incommensurable value and protect it from the persistent effort to commodify it, an effort which leads inexorably to the relativity all values and meanings, that is, to nihilism. Even when life is not exactly the kind of gift we would have asked for or think we deserve, especially then, it appears as a source of meaning and value which can never be reduced to our standards because they are all born from it. Even our confusion and suffering, our longing for more time, are a testament to the incalculable good that it is to be.