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Thursday, June 25, 2020

Birthdays Are Complicated (for me)

When you're a kid, birthdays are the cat's ass; the absolute pinnacle of your existence.  You literally spend your entire year - every waking moment - either looking forward to it with eager anticipation, or looking back on it with a bitter-sweet longing that you won't recognize as nostalgia until you hit middle age.  

I'm not sure when it happened, but at some point, for me, birthdays acquired an ominous pong... like a Tupperware in a hard-to-reach corner of the fridge containing a left-over science project that was once part of a delicious, festive meal.

Anybody who sent me birthday wishes this year received the following upbeat reply from me:

Thanks for the birthday wishes. 

Birthdays seem like a silly thing to get emotional about; like Steve Martin in ‘The Jerk’, when he gets all excited about the arrival of the new phone book.

Everyone gets one.  Everyone is listed.  What’s the big deal, right?!

Except that’s not really true, is it?  A lot of people don’t get a next birthday.  The book comes out, but their name isn’t in it. 

So yeah, it *is* a big deal, and I’m deeply grateful for another year... and for my wonderful family and friends.

And I mean/meant every word of it, from the bottom of my heart.

But birthdays are complicated.  And there's such a thing as 'a lie of omission'... where the moment the words leave your lips, your cheeks glow crimson with guilty knowledge of the rest of the story you just bit down on to keep if from spilling out.  That's what I felt sending out that cheery, upbeat thank-you note.

In general terms, I think some of my problem with birthdays come from secret feelings of inadequacy or unworthiness.

Some people lose their house in a fire or get cancer in the prime of life, and as they watch helplessly as the gleaming, scheduled express train of their life jumps the tracks and goes plunging into the ravine below, they demand explanations from G-d by bleating "Why Me?... what did I do to deserve this?!"   

My wiring seems to be screwed up somehow, because each time something has gone right in my life, I've found myself standing in the shuddering wake of a car that just missed me... standing under the chuppah next to the woman of my dreams... walking around a hospital delivery room holding my perfect newborn child... surveying my new, well appointed office... a small, inner child behind my eyes bleats, "Why me?... what did I do to deserve this?!"

As the years have passed, its only gotten worse. 

Friends who did everything right; studied hard in school, made responsible life decisions, chose practical careers... got 'put out' in the cruel, seemingly random game of dodge-ball that we're all forced to play.  

I took an unusual route home from work the other day; one that took me to a cemetery where a shocking number of people I've known and loved are buried.  I parked the shiny new car that my company just gave me and walked between the dusty rows until I came to the grave of a friend who had lived a charmed, magical life.  He was the smartest, most talented person I've ever known.  Everything seemed to come easily to him, and everything he touched turned to shining gold. 

Yet there I was, sobbing next to his grave... not because I missed him (I do), but because I can't seem to come to terms with why things work out for some people, but not others.  I sat there with the line from Billy Joel's 'Allentown' running in a loop in my head, "...For the promises our teachers gave, If we worked hard, If we behaved...". 

I never really worked that hard, and often didn't behave.  Yet I'm still here... amazed and confused to still be in the game.... screaming silently with a deep, maudlin sense of inadequacy, 'why me?!', when any sane person would be looking at my wonderful life, and celebrating every moment.

Posted by David Bogner on June 25, 2020 | Permalink


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I, too, have these same sort of thoughts and feelings. My mediocrity continues to make me feel that somehow, bad luck or worse case scenarios are just around the corner.

However, as blessed as I am, (and I also think that), I have just as much right to have this life as I have tried my best to do the right thing for me and my family. And I also know the many internal and personal challenges and obstacles I have faced, that those around me may not be aware of.

My point is that you’re not alone in these thoughts and feelings and I’m glad you are able to articulate it so much better than most.

Oh and you DO deserve all the good things in your life.

Posted by: Jake Bogner | Jun 25, 2020 3:10:33 PM

Jake Bogner ... thanks, bro.

Posted by: Treppenwitz | Jun 25, 2020 7:02:54 PM

Because God said that this is the right thing for me at this moment.
Sometimes I don’t get a speeding ticket, sometimes I get a flat tire in a parking lot.
I let God balance the books, and with all that I’ve experienced (it’s been an interesting life), I no longer say “l deserve better”, or “This is more than I deserve.”
All that I receive, both the “Good” and the “Other” is part of His plan and His accounting.
If it’s “Good” then I say thanks.
If it’s “Other” then I ask for help.
Accounting was never my thing anyway.

Posted by: Joshua | Jun 25, 2020 11:29:44 PM

I think we all go through phases of feeling very unworthy of life, and as we get older take stock more and more. The way you celebrate your life in Israel through your story telling shows that you don't take anything for granted. The way you have cultivated a spirit of thankfulness has often chased away my "glooms".
I think the world still needs you, and will need you more and more as the days and years ahead get harder. Your writing sounds in a world that merely clangs. Keep it up please.

Posted by: Jane | Jun 26, 2020 12:33:52 AM

Joshua... intellectually I try to do as you say. But my gut doesn’t take direction from my head.

Jane... thank you. I’m a richer person for having gotten to know you through my blog. Just one of many things for which I’m thankful.

Posted by: Treppenwitz | Jun 26, 2020 3:18:19 PM

I have had more of than my fair share of 'stuff' in life, by my default has never been why me. Not sure, my default feeling is why does everyone else have to suffer because I am a sicko. For some reason my wife and family like me despite my infirmity so I take that and happily soldier on. I still would be happy without the medical crap but I am not going to curl up into a ball and whither away.

Posted by: . | Jun 26, 2020 4:38:35 PM

. ... Sounds like you and I share a lot in common.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Jun 28, 2020 2:27:04 PM

One of the many reasons I need to believe in God is because otherwise, survivor guilt would be one of the several reasons self-euthanasia would seem appealing. My image of an after-life, rendering this life only a step in a long, eternal process, allows me to push the difficult thoughts about the unfairness of it all away. "My God," as my son refers to the Hero in my view of Judaism, sees the Big Picture, and manipulates events in the lives of individuals so that things will all work out fairly and kindly in the end. This view comes not from a position of reason, but from a need to survive. If someone ever conclusively disproves my Weltanschauung, I cannot imagine the infinity of the level of sadness. But since this is where I live, I am so very grateful for every day, and joyful for each wonderful human I've known, even though I "have the privilege" of living to miss more and more of them all the time. May the end of the story be sweet. Happy to have you around for another year, my friend.

Posted by: Ruti Eastman | Jun 28, 2020 2:45:59 PM

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