The Internet doesn’t make people crazy. It simply draws out the crazy that’s already there.
So I can’t say social media made birthdays weird for me, because I think I’ve been weird about them for some time. When my birthday comes along, I’m torn between wanting it to be ignored entirely and hoping for a surprise party of Kim-Kanyesque proportions. Everything in between makes me feel squirmy. This probably makes me a covert narcissist, a label I slap on myself after a quick, inexpert Google search, which is exactly the kind of behaviour you’d expect from a covert narcissist.
If I’m conflicted about real-world birthdays, I’m doubly so for virtual ones. On Facebook, I see notices all the time about who is celebrating a birthday that day. Some of these people I know well, some are acquaintances, some are supermodels who haven’t returned my calls even after I sent them my credit card information.
Some time ago, I began to feel resentful about these relentless birthdays, and not just because of the sheer volume. Each notice became a social quandary: do I know this person well enough to wish him a happy birthday? Plus, what if I missed an important one? I think to myself: won’t that person wonder, “Hmmm, I received 958 birthday wishes – every one of my ‘friends’ except that Murray fellow. And yet he wished happy birthday to that Facebook so-and-so.” Of course, that’s exactly what a covert narcissist would think.
And then there’s my own birthday. Getting inundated with Facebook greetings, all these people wishing me health and prosperity. My God! Who are all these positive, generous freaks! But I know that most of these people aren’t remembering my birthday; they’re being reminded of my birthday. There’s a difference. It’s like thanking Grandma for the socks and being told to thank her, even though they’re itchy.
Clearly, social media is modifying birthday behaviour. The only thing I like modified is corn starch, so, pushing back, I imposed a blanket ban on Facebook birthdays. Like a horrible person, I began ignoring all birthday reminders, and I changed my setting so that my own birthday would not be visible. No one would receive a reminder, and therefore everyone would be off the hook. No obligation. Take that, social media oppressor!
This past Monday, I turned 49. As my obituary will state if it all goes south in a hurry, I am now in my fiftieth year. It’s not a round-number year, but my sister did point out that I am a perfect square. I’m hoping that’s a math reference.
My birthday passed quietly but not entirely unnoticed. At the school where I work, my daughter stood up during morning assembly and announced, “Today is Mr. Murray-slash-my dad’s birthday.” There was polite applause but no Kardashian-level adulation. Still, it felt… nice.
Through the day, a few students and teachers called out, “Happy Birthday!” as they passed by. “Thank you,” I said, and I meant it. One of my co-workers and I chatted about how the forties are the old age of youth but the fifties are the youth of old age. Another co-worker walked into my office and offered the cheeriest birthday wishes imaginable. You could just tell she loves birthdays.
“All that positive energy and good wishes coming at you!” she enthused.
And that’s when I realized I was being a jerk. Most people – normal people – actually like offering birthday wishes. They enjoy cheerfully congratulating you for surviving in this world another 365 days. It’s not a burden to them at all, regardless of whether they remember or are reminded. And for the recipient, it’s lovely and touching – a small round of applause for simply existing. How often does that happen? Once every 12 months, as it turns out. So thank you, everyone, for your kind and thoughtful birthday wishes, in person or virtually.
But here’s the creepy coda to this sorry birthday tale. Even though my birthday was blocked on Facebook, my niece remembered it and posted a “Happy Birthday” on my timeline. This post then showed up in other people’s feeds with a notice like, “Hey, Ross’s niece just wished him a Happy Birthday!” And then these people wished me happy birthday. Before long, Facebook had organized the greetings for me, complete with a little graphic of a birthday cake: “Dear Ross, here are all your birthday wishes. Resistance is futile.”
The Internet makes me crazy. But that’s exactly what a covert narcissist in his fiftieth year would say.