I just recently had a birthday. I’ve always liked when my birthday fell in the calendar, but especially since Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday was made a national holiday. Now I celebrate my birthday with a long weekend!
Even before the holiday, I appreciated that my birthday fell when it did. Practically, a mid-January birthday is far enough removed from Christmas that there is little risk of getting double-gifted (as in, “this is your birthday-Christmas gift”), and yet close enough that if you didn’t get something you really wanted for Christmas, you had another chance.
But the less mercenary reason I liked my birthday in January was that the glow of the Christmas season hadn’t totally faded, and between Advent, New Year’s and my birthday I had a nice trifecta of reflection and goal-setting. It’s a new year.
It’s a Wonderful Life is a defining story in my life. The big fish-small pond tension is one I appreciate, and the redemption through friends theme is uplifting. But the thing that has always resonated most strongly with me is the underlying question: “What if you had never been born?”
My story, if you don’t know it, lends itself to this question. I was born in 1969, four years before Roe v. Wade. While I am fully aware that abortion was an option before that court decision, and while I have never met my biological parents to ask whether, in different legal circumstances, they might have made a different choice, I have held with me since pretty early the knowledge and responsibility that I didn’t have to be born. That George Bailey is a recent memory each time my birthday rolls around keeps that knowledge real, tangible.
As I was reflecting this year, it occurred to me that I really should tell people, instead of “Happy birthday,” “I’m glad you were born.” There is something deeply affirming about hearing this, and something deeply personal in telling someone this. And, at least for me, it is true of everyone I know, even if I need to remember it more often for some than for others.
This year I learned that LinkedIn has joined Facebook in telling your friends and bare acquaintances to wish you happy birthday. I have declared birthday bankruptcy – telling that many people, many of whom I really don’t know, that I appreciate their ritual happy birthday is just not happening. But amidst all the pro formas, I got some touching, personal comments that really meant a lot. Some of them came from people I would never have expected, and many spoke to parts of my life where I feel like I am often employing the “fake it till you make it” approach, so they really reinforced that I am on the right track with my life, or at least that I have people fooled.
But darned if someone I value very highly didn’t say “I’m glad you were born.” To which I hear a voice in the back of my mind whisper, “Mission accomplished.”