Today, August, 5th, 2011, my dad turns 68. Another year, another family birthday celebration. My father and brother tend to be the “birthday people” in my family. Their birthdays are usually marked by homemade birthday cakes and dining out at nice restaurants. I tend to be more indifferent, and my mother tries to avoid any celebration, going as far as refusing to confirm her actual birth date when we ask (March 23rd? Or 27th?)…
Anyways, planning his birthday celebration this year got me thinking about birthdays in general. Which reminded me of an essay I wrote for my freshman writing seminar. The essay, which I would say accurately represents my personal views, is about why I find the celebration of birthdays to be narcissistic. I’ve condensed the original piece, but it still looks pretty long. I promise it’s interesting though, so please bear with me.
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By the time we enter college, we’ve blown out dozens of candles, unwrapped hundreds of presents, and had the birthday song sung to us countless times, maybe in more than one language. We take this all for granted and consider it routine, though when we stop to think, we may ask – what are we really celebrating? Although the technical concept of a birthday – the anniversary of a person’s birth – seems insignificant, American society has made the birthday into a narcissistic celebration of the individual; a person expects to receive not only special acknowledgement on this day, but also gifts and the positive wishes of their peers. While this is especially true for children and teens, different forms of narcissistic celebration apply to adults well.
Children’s birthday celebrations encourage narcissism by giving the child a sense of entitlement; the child is in an environment where he or she is the center of attention without having achieved anything substantial. Guests are expected to convey birthday wishes and bring a gift for the birthday boy or girl. Additionally, DIY books on how to throw children’s birthday parties suggest themed parties where the birthday boy or girl can be made to feel like a princess, or a knight, or a fairytale character. Such parties are even further removed from reality and elevate the ego of birthday boy or girl. All these things fuel children’s narcissism because they give children the impression that for no reason, other than the fact that they’ve survived another 364 days since their last birthday, they deserve to receive presents and be showered with attention and praise.
For teens, birthday celebrations remain important, but the sense of entitlement grows. While most children are content to indiscriminately accept any presents, teenagers have a stronger sense of identity and know what they want and may ask for specific presents. While board games and toys for kids are relatively cheap, the typical desirable presents for teenagers such as name-brand clothes, cell phones, and mp3 players are more costly. This shows that teens believe they deserve more than they were getting before. Teenagers’ narcissism is especially apparent when they express disappointment or unhappiness when they don’t get exactly what they wanted or had asked for. Again, this sense of entitlement is illogical and only exists because these teens are raised in a culture where they’ve been told this is acceptable. Birthdays are the only occasion when it’s not rude, but even appropriate, to tell people what you want, and to expect to get what you ask for.
Pop culture portrayal also elevates the narcissism of birthday celebrations. MTV’s reality TV series My Super Sweet 16 features teens in the US and UK with wealthy parents who throw their children huge 16th birthday celebrations. The official MTV My Super Sweet 16 website describes the show as “Meet the kids who are determined to go all out to mark this major turning point in their lives, the parents who lavish every wish, and find out first hand what it’s really like to turn 16 these days … These kids expect and will only accept the absolute best.” This implies that such extravagant parties are not only exciting and desirable, but also representative of “what it’s really like to turn 16 these days.” By broadcasting such a show on mainstream TV, such a lifestyle and such exhibitions of narcissism become culturally acceptable.
For adults, the tendency becomes to ignore, rather than celebrate birthdays, as a way to ignore the “undesirable” aspects that come with growing older and to preserve the image of the young, ideal self. Middle aged people express narcissism by denying their aging, because they fear what comes with old age. This is especially true for women who value the physical beauty of youth. Additionally, as people age, they acquire more responsibilities and it becomes less appropriate to hold lavish birthday celebrations. In middle age, it also becomes inappropriate to mention a person’s true age, especially for women, as if denying a person’s true age would postpone the midlife crisis and stop him or her from actually aging.
There is nothing wrong with celebrating life, but it’s really quite amazing when you think about how such ordinary dates have been given such extraordinary significance for seemingly no more reason that to stoke egos.
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When I celebrate with my father and my family today, it will be because I know it makes him happy, and not because he was 67 yesterday and is 68 today.