With my birthday just days away, my friends are reminding me to compose a grand wish for the year ahead. Why not, birthdays are a great excuse to indulge in the fanciful; to blow out cute candles for no logical reason and pretend I am more mature for equally unfounded reasons.
But what is the significance, if any, of this special day that I am fussing about?
Growing older? By how much and how so? The traditional Chinese community regard the newborn as already being a year old. The creation of the baby is reckoned from its moment of conception. Some others take the foetal heartbeat as indicating the beginning of a life form. And most Muslims believe that the soul is breathed into the foetus only after 120 days.
The exact time of birth is seen as paramount in determining the destiny of the child by those who trust astrology. Some Asian parents even consult astrologers before timing their cesarean delivery as to assure a bright future for their baby. But does anyone know which second or even minute the baby is considered as “born”. When the mother’s contraction starts? When the baby’s head is visible? When its toe is out? When it lets out its first cry? When the umbilical cord is cut? Even expert astrologers differ in their opinion on these matters.
A key concept of physics is the law of conservation of mass. It states that matter and energy can’t be created nor destroyed. The parts of the mass can be rearranged or transformed in nature, but the total mass itself remains constant.
To elaborate, I can examine the four distinct stages in the metamorphosis of butterflies. Are the eggs, caterpillar and chrysalis separate creations from the butterfly? The caterpillar doesn’t morph into a frog, so there is a definite element of predictable continuity; but are they the butterfly? Have never seen a flying egg or larvae, so it feels safe to say no. So when exactly is a butterfly, a butterfly? Or perhaps, as expounded by physics, the butterfly was never created nor the caterpillar destroyed. Even the egg is just a continuation of elements from the parent butterflies.
I can extend this scientific concept to my birthday wish. Not knowing when I began doesn’t mean forgoing my right to birthday wishes; I might just request for a magical crown to enthrone myself a writer. But wait, am I already one since am typing up this blog entry? Or do I have to wait till I sell my first novel; hit the bestseller list; win the Pulitzer prize?
Or did I become one when I first scribbled illegible marks and squiggles? Or is it imprinted in my destiny, astrologically charted, when the doctor decided it was time to cut the cord? Or was it confirmed centuries before, by the similar DNA which had been shaping the writers in my ancestry? Maybe a writer can never be conjured nor eliminated.
Just as the leaves nourish the caterpillar so it can grow its silky cocoon, likewise am I endlessly transformed by the elements that nurture me. I wasn’t created by the mere merger of an egg and sperm. I’m a continuation of mergers, including the extra helping of birthday cake that’s going to form my cellulite of tomorrow. If my body is ceaselessly shaped through the interaction with food, water and air, then surely my mind too can be perpetually transformed by engaging with people, ideas and activities. My birthday wish is valid for I’m not a fixed set of variables.
Birthdays are a social construct that can be better enjoyed if I’m not invested in its objectivity. In traditional India, birthdays are not celebrated on the same calendar date every year. Instead they are celebrated on the day of the solar-lunar return when the moon is at the exact angle from the sun as at the time of birth. Birthdays of Indian saints and sages are commemorated based on these calculations.
This day can fall anywhere between days to weeks from our calendar birthdays.
And Muslims, Indians, Egyptians, Chinese, etc., have their own calendars different from the Gregorian one commonly used.
So if I don’t wake up on the 23rd with a big birthday grin on my face or the day is ruined by incessant thunderstorm, I can always pick another date since there is already ample discrepancy and ambiguity as to the most suitable day or hour to renew my commitment to this human experience.
Birthday rituals can invigorate my intimacy with life. As a child I was taught to start the day by visiting church to express my gratitude for life’s blessings, and to make donations to reciprocate and acknowledge that without the world I cannot be.
Birthdays remind me that I’m never a separate bundle of chromosomes. If I were an isolated entity I couldn’t have graduated from milk to cakes.
And I don’t have to justify the passing years with achievements; I’m never accomplishing anything on my own to be claiming ownership of them. Everything I am today, is the coming together of everything I am not. Both years and success are socially constructed measurements.
When and how exactly this psyche typing this words started? And when will she end; when she closes the laptop; when this blog gets deactivated; when she dies; when her grave is no longer visited? And who knows what happens after death? Could this lifetime be but a dot in an infinite line of continuation?
If physics and ancient Greek philosophy of “nothing comes from nothing” is right, we can never be destroyed because we were never created in the first place. Humanity is as mysterious as the world it lives in. These are gifts that are neither earned nor deserved. I find I can discover exciting and timely secrets when I’m prepared to view myself, others and the world as ever evolving without conclusions.
I celebrate that understanding of human uncertainties just as much as I religiously follow the tradition of birthday wishes, blowing of candles, thanksgivings, sharings and gorging on cakes with my loved ones. Celebrate this weekend if you so wish, for all days can be special depending on different calendars, calculations and customs. See you again when I am officially a year older!