Dear Jean, Week 7: I Don’t Birthday Well


I don’t “birthday” well.

Erin Thomas: b. September 08, 1978

Jean Vanier: b. September 10, 1928

We are nearly a perfectly golden fifty years apart.

You have spent the majority of your life celebrating people who have been left uncelebrated and unloved. Today, we celebrate you as a wise, humble man who submitted himself to the love of God through people born with conditions the world chose to look upon with disdain. You have spent nearly every waking hour celebrating people — rich and poor, strong and weak, loving and unloving, smart in all sorts of ways.

How do you like to be celebrated?

Are you a multi-tiered cake kind of guy, who likes to have a goofy clown with confetti and a noisemaker explode out of the top? (Dear lord, I hope not! Nothing against cake; everything against clowns)

Are you a “come one, come all!” type of person, entertaining as many folks as possible at one time?

Are you an experience sort of fellow who much prefers to go somewhere special on his birthday?

Are you someone who would much rather be around the home kitchen table with good friends and family, sipping fine wine and enjoying laughter and warmth?

Are you someone who would rather appreciate the birthday greetings from people, and then close the library door, pick up a favourite dusty book, find your favourite armchair, don the spectacles, and pass the hours in silence with a hot cup of tea?

“Every child, every person needs to know that they are a source of joy; every child, every person, needs to be celebrated. Only when all of our weaknesses are accepted as part of our humanity can our negative, broken self-images be transformed.” – Jean Vanier, Becoming Human

You know more than anyone that yes, everyone needs to be celebrated. But with people coming into L’Arche who have such specific needs and personalities, how do you celebrate those people? I can imagine someone with Down Syndrome being open and affectionate with others, but I can’t imagine that every single individual with Down Syndrome possessing the same level of desire for personal attention on their birthday.

I can imagine someone with autism pushing the world away for their important multi-faceted reasons, but I can’t imagine that person being perfectly content inside themselves without being celebrated somehow. Perhaps they haven’t found their way to communicate how they would love to be celebrated, and perhaps we haven’t found a way yet to understand, but a way there is. I’m sure of it.

I turned 38 this year. The 8th wasn’t a good day.

I tried giving myself the guilt trips about the millions of people around the world who would give their right arms to be celebrated on any day, much less their birthdays. I tried downplaying the hours to “it’s just another day”. I tried reframing all of what happened or didn’t happen into something positive (and if you knew me, you’d know that this was a huge undertaking).

None of these things really seemed to work.

I don’t birthday well. I never have.

It took me years to understand, but I don’t like having so much attention directed at me in such a concentrated form. I don’t like being sung to (unless it’s from my small nephews, but that’s an understandable exception), I don’t like confetti or clowns (ugh, CLOWNS!), and I don’t like surprises.

Maybe my expectations rise too high, thinking people buying gifts know just who I am or what I like. But I tend to open gifts and feel… let down. Then the inevitable guilt follows, because the person in front of me has just purchased a present for me. The logic, to me, is: if it really is the thought that counts, I wouldn’t be holding a gift bag of make up. So, logically, someone was thinking ABOUT me but not really OF me.

This sounds selfish, no? But if I were to poll people around the world who feel like they have to pretend gratitude on their birthdays under all of that attention and pressure, I think we’d find I’m only expressing what multitudes of others struggle with.

I have to work on being grateful for what others’ offer me. I do! I admit it.

But I also have to accept that I much prefer spending planned quality time with the very few people whom I’ve allowed into my inner circle (no hints here: NO SURPRISES). The flip side to this preference is that I have a small, tight capacity for a few close people to be this close to me. I can’t handle anymore than that. It’s how I’m wired. But that really shrinks the pool in terms of who is feasibly able to be around on my birthday to be close to.

I could have had 1000 Facebook well wishes (some from people I didn’t even know I was friends with), and it wouldn’t have made up for the gap of loneliness. I didn’t feel I had the power to call someone else to fill in that gap, because… why? Why would I want a substitute for the people I truly loved? I would just have to fake having a good time with the substitute. Why would I put myself (or anyone else) through that?

I’m beginning to sound like a tired child, am I not?

Yes. And no.

If I was to count me being officially “single” from the time I turned 18 — legal age — then I have been single and without attachment for 20 years. So let’s frame all of what I’ve shared in that context. 20 years are a lot of years to feel scared that I’m going to be forgotten again but really, really, really wishing that I would be forgotten. 20 years are a lot of years to want to be seen-but-not-seen.

And 20 years is a lot of time to realize that I’m not going to be a mother.

(tick-tock, tick-tock, Woman, tick-tock)

Perhaps hormonal life affects men a little differently, I’m not sure; but when a woman reaches a certain age just before mid-life she realizes that one of her lifelong dreams — that of becoming a mother — is never going to happen. When there’s no spouse to share that private grief with on such a glaring day of attention and ‘celebration’, what’s a woman to do but find a secret place by the lake and cry out to God?

20 years.

I had planned to marry. I had planned to have 4 children (a boy, a girl, and a set of twins boy/girl). I planned to have written and published at least 5 books by now. I didn’t plan on a lot of fame and definitely not fortune, but I did plan on becoming an adult in the way most adults do.

None of it happened.

Okay, the book thing might have been somewhat unrealistic. But the desire for marriage and family is certainly not unrealistic.

So when my body and my soul whisper back to me: “These things aren’t going to happen” after 20 years, it’s no wonder that I don’t birthday well. It’s only a day of profound loneliness.

Sure, people have said “You were meant for other things!” That’s just a way for parents and friends to gloss over the reality that parenthood has been elevated to the gold standard in our culture, and that nothing is harder or more important than raising children. How can I delight in any other purpose when that purpose is vastly inferior to mommy-hood?

As a lifelong single person, are you able to hear the echo in my words?

These kinds of posts are precarious to write because I can so easily come off as: 1) ungrateful for the gifts that do come my way, 2) a “poor me” rant, or 3) a post that overshares beyond what readers really want to know. I assure you my intent is none of these.

I’m trying to look for the small gifts that fill my soul on my birthday. But I’m also trying to be more gentle on myself, knowing that I can’t handle all eyes on me without panic or tears setting in (it’s definitely not celebratory for me). It’s not easy. The expectation is that I WILL be grateful at all costs. So many years the cost seems to come at the expense of my peace of mind.

But there are still a few select eyes I wish would be around me on this supposed celebratory day. When they aren’t there, the empty space is enormous.

And the guilt returns: it’s like asking everyone to turn around and not look except for… you, you, and you. That’s IT. That puts a lot of pressure on those three folks to be there every year because I can’t handle birthdays otherwise. A lot of pressure. So heap on the guilt with the loneliness. I get why birthdays for a lot of people, celebrated or not, become fearsome enemies over the years.

How often do we celebrate people, with good intentions, in ways that scare them? Overwhelm them? Hurt them? Or really, at the end of the day, forget them?

How often do we celebrate in ways we adore celebrating, and forget to celebrate the person in front of us? I’ve done it. I know I have. My celebration ideas are fabulous! How could the other person NOT love the idea?

After 20 years, I get it…

Many of us don’t birthday well.

We all need to be celebrated, Jean, I agree.

But how can we celebrate one other in our weaknesses and downfalls? How can we do this in humility, knowing that celebrations bubble forward pain and sorrow as much as appreciation?

Clearly I’m still learning.

Until next time (and a beautiful, blessed Happy Birthday however you need to be celebrated),


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