I have never understood birthday celebrations. What are you really celebrating?
- The fact that you have survived another year of life? If you live somewhere like the UK with an infant mortality below 3.7 per 1,000 live births and a life expectancy of 81 years, reaching 22 is hardly special. Besides, you have had so little to do with your survival in your first 20 years!
- The fact that you have accomplished a lot? If these accomplishments are worthy, celebrate them when they occur or at a more relevant time marker like the end of the year
- The fact that you have new significant legal rights? In some cases, namely 16, 18 and 21 this is true, but not at 22 and beyond
None of these reasons rings true to me. Unsurprisingly in our human-centric world, birthday celebrations seem to revolve around human self-obsession. Each year, everyone you distantly know is expected to write a note and commemorate your continued presence on earth. In perverse logic, those who have already contributed more to your life are then expected to give you larger gifts. Furthermore, many are then expected to attend your celebrations, often put on by someone else in your honour. Here, your ‘followers’ sing a song for you and then clap as you extinguish flames on the produce of an animal’s dead child and another’s stolen milk. At the end of all of this, you have the audacity to have an additional wish (and obviously wish for unlimited wishes)!
The same birthday, a different celebration
Birthdays can have relevance. They should represent the number of times the earth has orbited the sun since your birth during which others have contributed to your existence. The earth and millions of humans and other animals who, willing or unwillingly, have sacrificed their lives to enable it. The family that devoted time and effort over many of their birthdays to create a world you can enjoy. The friends who care for you and bring colour to your world.
Birthdays offer an opportunity to be grateful for all of this. Spending a day to reflect intently on this will likely also bring more happiness than any other gift (a Harvard study). This is something I have observed in Dutch culture as I am working in Amsterdam. Here, on your birthday, the expectation is for the birthday person to bring in a cake for everyone else to enjoy, quite literally as it was not vegan! This fantastic tradition is something to build on to create a birthday celebration full of gratitude.
My Birthday Wish
I have been considering this commitment for a while and a birthday full of gratitude would be remiss without an action. This a commitment idea that originated from William MacAskill, founder of 80,000 hours and Giving What We Can, and his podcast with Sam Harris is great. My commitment is:
For at least the next 3 birthdays, I will donate any pre-tax income earned above £20,000.
Why am I publicly revealing my wish? Partially as a self-commitment device and as is the purpose of this blog, to provoke discussion and thought. As I consider who to donate to, I would love your input in the comments! Historically I have only donated to the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative.
No ifs, no buts – but some important caveats. I want it to be very clear that there are many reasons which make such a rule particularly easy for me to follow:
- I am not giving away much – £20k is a huge amount of money and places me in the top 2% of the world income distribution (find out where you rank here). In fact, I expect this will have little material impact on the way I lead my life
- In many ways, it is a cop-out – I should give more than the range above £20k, and I intend to, but this sort of limit makes it easier to justify spending money on myself. There is no justification for spending £20k and, hopefully, I won’t.
- I am in an incredibly privileged position – no real responsibilities, working in developing countries on a developed salary and most of all, the financial security of my parents in case of an emergency
- I have an odd frame of mind – Once I set this as a mental constraint, I can then follow it and, ironically, not feel ‘constrained’ by it. I take it as a given rather than something I have choice over. This was the case for going vegan as well.
- Lastly, I am purely selfishly motivated – as a human, I am selfish like all others but my real motivation is not the ‘warm gooey feeling’ from a donation. Honestly, I derive less joy knowing my donation helps hundreds or thousands of unfortunate others than I would from a good bike ride or run. However, I am motivated by acting by my principles and the subsequent contentedness I derive from it.
A Tentative Conclusion
Birthdays never made sense to me, it all seemed just too self-obsessed. So I stopped. That was until I received the greatest birthday gift I could have asked for – a very thoughtful and thought-provoking card from my sister. This card highlighted that I had narrowly conceived of birthdays as a celebration of myself rather of others. As Aanya wrote, ‘from a selfish perspective, birthdays force me to sit down and grant [friends & family] the mind-space they deserve to think about the ways they have contributed to my life and the ways in which they have improved it.’
Thanks to Aanya, I now look forward to celebrating my next birthday with an appreciation of how privileged my life is, a gratitude for the contribution of others to it and, in turn, a commitment to do some good for those are not as fortunate as myself.
Relevant posts – You might be interested in reading the follow on piece Confessions of an Addict and Should I Stay or Should I Go? Searching for real unknowns
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