Of all the days in the year, my birthday was the one I despised the most.
It used to be one of the events I always looked forward to, next to Christmas because it was my only day. Yet, I loathed it for the same reason. As another year came, I saw how inferior and insignificant my existence was, that celebrating the only day about my existence felt like a burden to other people. Despite being surrounded by the people I endearingly treasure, it inevitably created a hollow feeling.
Just like what my birthday is all about, it also recalls my failures and mishaps as a mere human. As I hug my bent knees, I also pacify my loneliness and sorrows brought on by the inevitable nature of aging.
My virtual birthday cake
Photo from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001)
Celebrating birthdays in the digital era gives a hologram-kind-of-hug. I would receive greetings from people I barely know just because someone I know posted about my birthday, and they somehow feel obligated to do so. It is stemming from a good intention, a genuine one. But perhaps creates a deep cavity, as if the words “Happy birthday” are all dried out. Despite the ill-fitting connection, their efforts still make my existence appreciated. However, reality hits as if I am surrounded by apparitions of unfamiliar faces in front of my birthday cake.
After our family dinner, my mom and sister were at the kitchen counter, setting up the cake they got me as they sang the quintessential birthday song. But as I blew my candles, I was all alone. My mother and sister retired to bed while I stared blankly at a cake that I was not able to share a slice with anyone. Cakes and the two words alike became mere symbolisms of a supposedly wonderful day of commemoration. It's just bland, all for the feed for the people to see.
As I ate my red velvet chocolate cake alone, my notifications were bombarded with birthday greetings, even from those people I no longer talk to. Despite that, I am still grateful that they happened and still exist, even though they became part of my mosaic.
Since then, I don’t tell people when my birthday is. It took two years for my college friends to find out about it. I wallowed in my loneliness; that melancholy felt addicting against my skin. But my consciousness told me otherwise — I still longed to be celebrated. I just brushed it off. I came to the point where I would organize a party, not because I wanted to be celebrated, but because I didn’t want to be with unknown apparitions anymore. I would invite people, and greeting me was not a requirement. They just had to be there on that day, eat the food I prepared, and share a laugh with me. They didn’t have to celebrate me. They just had to be there so that this day would feel less lonely.
The apparitions. I still remember them, and I am glad that they remember me. It’s just that I cradled my own sadness like my child, fed it with my own failures and traumas, and it sadly grew old the same age as I was. But now, I want it to walk on its own as I walk to another chapter with those who willingly want to walk with me.
Varied symbols of reciprocity
Photo from The Big Bang Theory (2007)
And just like cakes, gifts also became a symbolic part of birthdays. Gift-giving is not my love language, and it makes me feel guilty. There’s this constant need for reciprocity, with a force much stronger in tangible materials than anything else. In a way, Sheldon Cooper was right when he said, “You haven’t given me a gift. You’ve given me an obligation.”
Gifts serve different meanings — be it appreciation, adoration, kinship, or even sweet nothings. While gift-giving is done freely and willingly, it also comes with packaged obligations for the receiver: to accept the gift, express gratitude, and reciprocate. We may have a few attempts to lessen such commitments, but we cannot entirely escape them.
Whenever I receive gifts, I always have this apologetic look because I know deep down that the other person is, in a way, expecting something from me that I can’t give for now as a broke college kid. While I cherish them, they also give the sense that I do not deserve to have one because I become a burden to the giver for coming up and purchasing something that made them think of me.
But perhaps it’s time to pop that negative bubble.
For French Sociologist Marcel Mauss, gifts symbolize power and relationships. He also added that refusing to receive is the same as worrying about being unable to give something back. Beneath this worry is the fear of losing our status with the other party if the present we return is insufficient. Gift-giving has an element of respect and esteem, which makes such exchange a powerful means for building and maintaining relationships.
Gift-giving as a reciprocal act shouldn’t be caged in giving a present return in the traditional sense. It can be returned through closer bonds, assurance of being one’s ride-or-die, or even just to see the other party as considerate, kind, or giving. It’s not the same kind of self-interest as the archetypal, greedy receiver who longs for more. It is the self-interest of wanting fulfilled lives with loving connections.
A love-filled void
Because of my attachment to the old birthdays I had as a kid — full of gifts, annoying pinches of cheeks, and soothing head pats with school advice — I may have dismissed a few revolutions in my life. At some point, I let down the little girl who loved her special day, seeing the complex world bound with the reality of losing, hatred, sorrows, and even hedonistic pities. I whined over the lost candles I never had because I was so busy comforting my sadness that I manifested it as my identity.
But as I grew older, I no longer wanted the birthday spotlight to hush my loneliness. With that realization, I’m neither sad nor happy. But I’m full of love.
I don’t seek it anymore. Probably because I feel like I have enough love within me despite feeling deprived. I sustain myself with so much love that I have so much to give. So so much that it’s okay if it’s not reciprocated. So much that I’m capable of seeing all the good amid the chaos. So much that my mistakes amaze me and touch me in a je ne sais quoi way. The sadness I held endearingly has made me realize what I long deserved — love.
This year, you can say that this was the first time in a while that I celebrated my birthday genuinely. Not because I no longer feel alone or I was encouraged to do so, but because the void within me is now covered with a pile of love. I grow it in my own tree. Hence, my basket is full.
And I will never run out.