And Many More...

by Christina Baris | 1/16/19 2:05am

My older brother taught me many valuable life lessons: which words not to say in front of my parents, how to climb every tree in our backyard and the correct way to change lanes on a highway. Something he failed to pass on to me, however, was his hatred of birthdays.

It all started in a quiet Walmart in April of 2000. An employee had heard from my mom that it was my brother’s birthday and proceeded to urge the rest of the staff to “wish Michael a happy 7th birthday!” through an announcement over the loudspeaker. My brother was absolutely mortified, and this event officially marked the beginning of his despise of birthday celebrations. By the time he turned 16, my brother claimed that dedicating a whole day to celebrating yourself was an act of vanity and proposed that birthdays were no more than a reminder of our own mortality. Despite his claims, I still insisted on celebrating his birthday each year, struggling to understand how someone could find Carvel ice cream cakes so morally offensive.

Not all of us have been scarred by loudspeaker horror stories. Some people adopt a less morbid approach to birthdays and even look forward to the extra attention they receive one day a year. If nothing else, birthdays are a reminder of summer camp Facebook friends that were long forgotten or an excuse to eat that extra slice of cake.

But what do birthdays truly signify? Can one arbitrary day really reflect complex themes, such as change and growth, or do birthdays simply mark one more revolution around the sun? For me, change is continuous and gradual; I cannot identify any one single moment that signified my transition into adulthood, and it certainly was not on midnight of my 18th birthday. (I’m actually unsure if that transition has happened at all … I’ll get back to you on that one.) Birthdays might not be remarkably momentous milestones, but they definitely hold some personal importance.

The value of birthdays relies on one’s personal definition of milestones. What do we consider the defining moments of our lives and how do we measure them? Milestones can be serendipitous; they are not always marked on a calendar. We mature due to circumstance and experience, not necessarily through birthdays. Zachary Couvillion ’22 doesn’t think that we should attribute any particular significance to specific dates when reflecting on the milestones of our lives.

“I don’t think [birth dates] really have a particular meaning,” Couvillion said. “[Milestones are] either a tangible accomplishment or a mental or emotional breakthrough.”

However, Scarlett Souter ’22 believes that birthdays are in fact small milestones, due to the gained freedoms associated with turning a certain age. For example, turning 16 marks a new age of independence and self-reliance that is often associated with being able to drive, and 18th birthdays are often connected with leaving home and starting college. Gabrielle Levy ’22 agrees that birthdays are milestones in our lives and should be celebrated as such, as each year of life brings about significant change.

“[Each birthday] is a milestone because you’re [beginning] a new year of your life — a new chapter with new experiences,” Levy said.

In terms of celebration, birthdays can highlight a sense of belonging for college students when they celebrate on campus. At home, most people split their birthdays between family and friends, whereas at college, students usually are only able to celebrate with their friends, some of whom they may have only recently met. Celebrating your birthday with an entirely new group of people at an entirely new place may sound intimidating, but it can serve to strengthen bonds and create memories between friends. This was especially true for Couvillion, whose birthday helped to ease his transition into freshman fall.

“My last birthday made me feel pretty welcome [in the Dartmouth community],” Couvillion said. “No other [birthday] sticks out to me that much.”

At the very least, birthdays force us to be cognizant of our own aging. They reflect the passage of time, which is an idea that excites some and frighten others. I recall counting down the days to every single one of my birthdays, but my father sighs at even the slightest reminder that he’s getting another year older. As we grow up, enthusiasm and anticipation turn into insignificance and anxiety. Will you blow out the candles on your 40th birthday cake just as eagerly as you did at 13? Maybe your next birthday will make you join my brother’s boycott. Maybe it will force you to acknowledge the fact that you are growing up. Or maybe it won’t really mean anything at all. Personally, my only certainty is that I will be avoiding loudspeakers — and Walmarts — at all costs.