My niece turned 10 a couple of weeks ago. Double digits. As with my son, who will be 10 in a year and a half, I have been reminding my niece that this means you will never again celebrate a single digit birthday. I don’t think they quite get the significance of that like I do, a man in his mid-forties.
Birthdays have always been important to me. I credit my parents with finding creative ways to celebrate a summer birthday when everyone was out of school and sometimes far-flung on vacation. They always made my birthday feel like a big deal. I also realize not everyone is a fan of birthdays, often for good reason and sometimes not.
Birthdays are sacred days, though. We took our first breath and survived the process of labor on the day of our birth. I think of the state motto of my home state of South Carolina when I think of birthdays, “Dum spiro spero.” That’s Latin for “While I breathe, I hope.” I am here, alive, and a child of God. My life and my birthday are sacred.
I’m guessing someone out there will roll their eyes at me when I mention how much I appreciate Facebook birthday messages. Not just the ones I receive on my day, but I value knowing about my friends and their special day. Even if I miss writing a post that day, I still have a moment to think about them and acknowledge their life as a gift. There’s deep meaning in that contemplative and compassionate act.
My friend, Lisa, is celebrating her 50th birthday later this month and as with her 40th, she’s reflecting on this milestone each of the 50 days leading to the big day. She says, “I’ve tried to use it to intentionally reflect on my life – the people who have formed me, family and friends.” On Day 2 she celebrated her goddaughter and posted pictures from her recent high school graduation. I may have to borrow this practice in six years!
There’s at least one other reason I like birthdays. They are important markers of time. Time is as much a mystery to me now as ever, which helps explain why I continue to be fascinated by it. Ask anyone who really knows me, and they will tell you that I live and die by a calendar. As much as I hate to admit it sometimes, it’s true. I also love wall calendars and am the one who designs the family photo calendar every December.
Even recognizing my own attachments to it, I am still awed at how preoccupied we are with time. Just listening carefully to our everyday language, we hear phrases loaded with our obsession with time. “I’m out of time.” “It’s not the right time.” “I made it just in time.” I could go on.
Birthdays not only mark time, they call us out of the constant noise and busyness of our lives to stop and honor time. That’s what I love about Lisa’s reflections leading up to her birthdays marking the decades. The intentional reflection extends to a whole season and makes even deeper meaning out of her life. It encourages gratitude and recounts what is important to her. It affords her the opportunity to connect or even reconnect with her community. Birthdays have the power to do this if we let them.
How might you celebrate your next birthday? Could it be a day of intentional reflection in addition to celebration? I hope so because you are sacred and so is your birthday.
As I walked out the door leaving my niece’s birthday party, I gave her a hug and reminded her it would be double digits from now on. “Yeah, until I make it to triple digits, Uncle Lyn,” she exclaimed. I smiled and thought, “Dum spiro spero.”
“While I breathe, I hope.”
The Rev. Dr. Lyn Pace is a United Methodist minister and college chaplain who lives in Oxford, Georgia with his spouse and 8-year-old.