Today is my birthday. And I’m “celebrating” in the same way I did last year: by staying offline. Here’s why.
A year ago today was the beginning of a 4-month hiatus I took from Facebook and the rest of the online world.
When I returned to Facebook, a lot of people assumed that I had been offline to continue the healing from my concussion. Others assumed that I was testing my willpower or assessing the necessity of social media for business, or that I took a break as part of some noble experiment. All rational reasons, but none of them are the truth.
Of course, in my time away from social media I gained some valuable insight into the myths surrounding social media and its impact on our productivity, morale, happiness, business, and life in general. What I learned might surprise you. Or it might not. In any event, all of those lessons are for another time.
Today is about coming clean and sharing the truth. The truth is that I took a break from Facebook not because I was in pursuit of some noble goal, but because I was running away from what was there.
Hundreds of people wishing me a “Happy Birthday.”
If there was ever a phrase that had no risk of being misconstrued, this is it. The intention behind this wish is pure. Given with love. And yet, on this day last year, those words were like an arrow to my heart, inflicting so much pain that I could not bear to hear (or read) them.
Pressure to be Happy
I never thought I would be one of those people who didn’t like their own birthday. And yet there I was. It was a “big birthday” – I was turning 40. And I wanted no part of it. Not the birthday, and certainly not the happy.
Birthdays are always a good time for reflection, but there is something about certain numbers – typically the milestones ending in 0 and 5 – that invites more than reflection. Assessment. Comparison.
Consciously or unconsciously, we tend to ask:
Am I in the place where I expected to be by this age? Am I where I think I should be? How does my life compare to the picture I had in my mind?
Here I was at 40, and the answer to each of those questions was a resounding NO. I’ll leave the details for another time, and cut to the chase: nothing in my life looked like I thought it would look by this age. To borrow a phrase from Tony Robbins, my life conditions did not match my blueprint.
I was not happy, and I did not want to pretend to be.
For the few weeks leading up to my birthday, I had been engaged in a tug of war between my desire to mark the milestone and my desire to ignore the entire event completely. There were moments when I wanted to have a big celebration and moments when I felt an overwhelming desire to retreat. I yearned for a sinkhole to open up and swallow me. I wanted to escape from this life and this world.
Into this mix entered my mother, with her big heart and desire to celebrate the occasion with a big family dinner. A piece of me wanted this: my family, my grandparents, my closest friend around a table to toast to the occasion. At the same time, the very thought of this tightened the knot in the pit of my stomach. In between the two sides of me was the family pressure: they wanted to do this for me. They wanted to celebrate me.
Shouldn’t I allow them to do this for me? Can’t I do this for them?
After weeks of wavering, I asked my mom to cancel the reservation. I’d like to say that I handled this with grace, but I did not. I handled it to the best of my ability at the time, that is, with a lot of drama and crying. The next morning I felt awful about myself. Wasn’t it selfish of me to cancel dinner? Didn’t I owe it to my family to wipe away the tears and accept their love?
Yet even as I felt that, every utterance of “Happy Birthday” felt not like a loving wish, but like a command. A command that I could not obey. After reading the first few Facebook posts on my wall, I knew that I had to stay away from it for a while.
I had planned to come online to thank my friends for their messages. You know what I’m talking about … that ubiquitous post that everyone writes on their birthday:
Thank you all so much for the outpouring of love and your birthday wishes. I am so grateful to have so many friends who care about me. You helped make this the best birthday ever. #blessed #lovemylife
Just the thought of it made me cringe.
That doesn’t mean I was ungrateful. I could recognize and be grateful for the many blessings in my life. But in that moment I did not feel “#blessed”. I did not “#lovemylife.”
In that moment, my life was not how I wanted it to be.
This, of course, is the definition of suffering: when we want things to be, or feel, something other than they are.
Being With What Is
Our culture does not embrace emotions like unhappiness. We are conditioned to reach for solutions to numb the pain. We have “happiness experts” to tell us how to be happy. We have drugs to alter our chemical state. We view unhappiness as a disease that can be cured by modern science or a nice glass of wine, or by escaping into the digital world.
Some of these tactics can serve us until they don’t. Pain and unhappiness are necessary for growth and change. I love this quote from Khalil Gibran:
Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
I knew that I needed to make a change and that the only way to catalyze that change was to give myself over to what I was feeling – to fully participate in my experience. And so I did. I allowed myself to be with what I was feeling, and in so doing I opened the door to a new path of becoming.
There’s a lot to say about this beyond the scope of one blog post, but reflecting specifically on today – on where I was on this day last year – has illuminated for me a connection that I couldn’t see then.
Who I Think I Need to Be vs Who I Am
With the perspective of time, I can see that my response to both of these circumstances – the dinner and the Facebook greetings – surfaced the same issue:
the tension between who I thought I needed to be for others and being in my truth.
Honoring my truth and being where I needed to be, physically and emotionally, marked the first cuts into the ties binding me to the expectations of who I needed to be for others. It was the start of my personal excavation – digging through layers of conditioning to discover the truth of who I am and who I am capable of becoming.
One Year Later
So here I am. One year later. Another birthday.
If this were a movie, you’d expect to see a “happy ending montage”: celebrating my birthday in a life that looks vastly different from the scenery of last year. After all, why else would I pour out this story now, a year later, except to say:
Look at me and how I turned my whole life around.
The truth is, many of the “life conditions” that existed last year are still present. In many respects, I feel like
nothing little has changed. The scenery of my life looks (mostly) the same. This week has been rough. I started to feel stuck. That persistent, nagging question popped up:
What’s wrong with me that I can’t seem to make changes happen?
Deja vu, all over again.
Emotions have been raw all week.
The other day at yoga class, my teacher Justin asked me “how are you?”
I couldn’t even answer for fear of unleashing the waterworks (which, would be fine, but not what I wanted just before class started). After class, we had a chance to speak briefly and Justin advised me to be “in it” – to allow myself to feel what I’m feeling. I assured him that I was definitely in it.
I’ve learned this much: there is nowhere else to be.
And then it hit me: I realized that while it may look and feel like I’m in the same place, there has been change.
I may be standing in the same place, but I am not the same person.
I’ve expanded my reservoir of spiritual nutrients, and, with them, my capacity for holding space for my emotions. I’ve learned how to be with what is uncomfortable, without running away from it.
I’ve expanded in my capacity for being.
This is Where I Am
This process of unfolding, of discovering your truth, takes time. At least that’s my experience.
Some days, I feel incredibly behind, like everyone else has already figured it out. Other days, I allow myself to believe that it only appears like everyone else has figured it out, because that’s the story they tell on social media. In fact, most people haven’t even started their process. Many never will read the article. It’s easier to remain on the treadmill of doing, to don the masks and present the image of happiness.
It’s much more difficult to get off a moving treadmill, to stop and just be with whatever is going on. The practice of surrender is the hard work.
Justin reminded me of something one of his teachers says:
You can’t rush anything that you want to be permanent.
I love this.
This reminds me that what I’m after is not merely change, but evolution. Growth.
There are no shortcuts.
The only way out is through.
I never knew what that meant, until I got in deep.
So I am not rushing. I am honoring where I am. I am digging deeper still. I am practicing “being with what is,” and I am surrendering into the emotions that I’m feeling, without making them wrong.
No judgments. No comparisons.
And as for “Happy Birthday?”
I’m still not feeling it, but the words don’t sting like they did last year. I can hold space for the wishes, even while I hold space for the truth of my experience.
And in the end, I think that this – living in the truth of our experience – is the only path to lasting happiness.