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Why I hate(d) my birthday

On starting to stop asking 'How did it get so late so soon?'

I started disliking my birthday at 25, the day when the forecast of 30 was mathematically closer then the memory of 20. I used to check off the days to my birthday when it was an achievement, like my 16th birthday because it came with permission to drive; my 18th because it came with permission to vote; my 21st because it came with permission to drink. 25, on the other hand, came with nothing but the promise that the upcoming year would be filled with more twisted ankles and muscle pulls then the year before.

I said good-bye to my twenties the same year I graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary, got engaged, began receiving a regular paycheck, and bought a house…all seemingly celebratory achievements, but really only check marks on the qualifying list for “real life.” I went from receiving student loans to paying them off, along with other weird fees like electricity, water, and gas bills, car payments, and the strangest fee of all…taxes. In my twenties, my job was to read and my greatest stress was turning in meaningful, thought-provoking papers to my professors. In my thirties, my job had consequences far more terrifying then a poor grade, which obviously led to more pronounced stresses.

So why celebrate? Why remind myself with a cake and a party that life will continue to pile it on? That my fear of twisted ankles and pulled muscles has quickly morphed into a fear of colonoscopies and prostate exams?

Today I turn 36. That means my father is 65 and my daughter is two weeks away from 4, which really means my father is nearing 70 and my daughter, who as far as I am concerned was born YESTERDAY, is soon to be off to kindergarten. In the words of Dr. Suess, “How did it get so late so soon? It’s night before it’s afternoon. December is here before it’s June. My goodness how the time has flown. How did it get so late so soon?”

I disliked my birthday in my twenties, grew to hate it in my early 30’s, but this year, with 4 years to go until 40, I have evolved into a new perspective.

You see, it is easy be angry at trading in a pair of cleats for a prescription of Lipator, but being angry about the circle of life is ungrateful, shortsighted, and, frankly, unbecoming.

But it is also very common.

Most of us have heard the name Elizabeth Kubler-Ross who penned the groundbreaking book “On Death and Dying,” where she introduced the world to the 5 Stages of Grief. Most of us know them by name; all of us have experienced them. Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. While her book focused on impending death or the death of a loved one, the 5 Stages of Grief are today regularly applied to loss in general…And those of us who struggle with our birthdays see them not as celebrations, but as markers that measure our uncontrollable loss of time.

“How did it get so late so soon? It’s night before it’s afternoon. December is here before it’s June. My goodness how the time has flown. How did it get so late so soon?”

Denial can last a long time. It is the instigator of the mid-life crisis, but for me it ended at 28. Summer softball season began days after my birthday, and on the first play of the first game a hard line drive was hit into the gap between center and right field I charged at it, thinking I was moving with the pre-knee surgery speed of my youth. I lunged for the catch with a horizontal, diving stretch fit for the 18-year-old version of myself, and, of course, came up well short of the ball. Not only did I make an error, but I fractured the very top of my humerus and ended my one-game season. Not a serious injury, but enough to move me past denial. At 28, the goal of a sports outing shifted from winning the game to not getting hurt, and being someone who thrived on athletic competition, that realization made me very sad.

The 5 stages of grief do not necessarily occur in any specific order or for any specific amount of time, and I randomly bounced between the next 3 stages for years. With every birthday, getting older seemed to be getting more serious and more horrifying. On my 31st birthday, shortly after my wedding, I bought life insurance. On my 32nd, weeks before the birth of my first child, I signed a Last Will and Testament. On my 33rd birthday, I introduced myself to B’nai Aviv at their Annual Congregational Meeting, formally taking on the challenge of being the youngest Conservative rabbi with a 500 family congregation.

But being a rabbi affords me the privilege of peering at the world through a different type of looking glass, allowing me to appreciate life for both its brevity and its brilliance.

Today, I turn 36 and have gratefully, and well before schedule, reached the final stage of accepting the loss of time. And with “acceptance”, I am able to realize that mourning a birthday as a marker which measures the loss of time is just a selfish way of saying that a birthday is a celebration of thanksgiving for gaining another year.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who has allowed me to reach this moment in time. Amen.

About the Author
Adam Watstein is currently the Rabbi of B'nai Aviv, a Conservative Synagogue in Weston, Florida.