May 8, 2020
Da Nang, Vietnam
I turned 52 years old today. I’m not sure if it was technically at midnight or not, as I am living on the opposite side of the world from where I was born, a full 12 hours ahead according to the time zones. But it’s late afternoon here now, so that means it’s already my birthday in the U.S. at this point.
So, what am I doing to mark this special day? Having a party with friends? Going out and treating myself to a special meal at a fancy restaurant? Buying myself a gift or a vacation? Nope. None of the above. I’ve been sleeping most of the day, and I finally got out of bed at 2:30pm to shower and make myself some coffee. Now I’m sitting up in the bed in front of a fan that is pushing a soft breeze over my skin in an attempt to keep me cool in the hot Vietnamese afternoon.
Because most everyone on the planet is under some type of travel restriction, social distancing or quarantine order due to the COVID-19 crisis, I am quite likely not alone in this situation. Many of us will have to be satisfied with receiving birthday greetings via Facebook or some type of online video platforms such as ZOOM.
But the truth is, this is pretty much my normal birthday.
The Baker and the Herald
As I have alluded to before, I was raised and spent most of my life as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. A self-proclaimed “true” Christian religion that is really a 19th-century doomsday cult with a publishing company in control. I’ll not spend a lot of time here discussing the beliefs and practices, except to say that birthdays are NOT to be recognized or celebrated by members of that organization.
The basis of this doctrine is fuzzy at best. The sect aggrandizes itself by asserting that it strictly follows scripture found in the Bible, casting aspersions on other religions for not doing so. Whether or not you believe in the gospels or Old Testament canon is irrelevant here. JW’s insist that they believe what their version of the Bible says, and therefore what is handed down from on high by those in control is accepted without question.
Citing scripture to firmly establish dogma is one thing. Using specious reasoning based on meager data is quite another. The support upon which JW’s establish their tenet about not celebrating birthdays is found in two separate places in the accepted holy writings.
The first of the two accounts that are used to forbid birthday celebrations is found in the story of Joseph. In his misadventures, he finds himself in prison along with the baker and cupbearer to Pharoah, the ruler of Egypt. On Pharoah’s birthday, the cupbearer is released from prison, but the baker is released from his head.
The second report is much more notorious to Christians. It’s the tragic narrative of John the Baptist (or Baptizer, if you don’t like the sectarian connotation). King Herod of the Jewish nation under Roman occupation was celebrating his birthday. And because his illicit girlfriend’s evidently hot stepdaughter pleased him and his cronies with her first century twerking, he promised her whatever she asked for.
She ended up asking for a serving dish containing the messianic prophet’s noggin. So, poor John was executed and brought to the party without getting to enjoy any party favors.
Based on these two accounts, and nothing else scripturally, the JW religion disallows its followers to acknowledge the date on which they came into this world. Their reasoning is that only twice in the Bible were birthdays mentioned, and both times someone’s head was disconnected from the rest of their body. Therefore, God must not want us to celebrate our own birthdays.
No Cake for You
Not only were we not to celebrate our own birthdays, we could also not participate in other people’s festivities. For JW children, this meant that we had to try to explain to our teachers that we didn’t want to enjoy cake and drinks and have fun with the rest of the class when Sally or Jimmy’s birthdays came around.
Instead, probably fifteen to twenty times during the school year when another classmate’s birthday party happened, we would be excused to go to the library
or the study hall to sit quietly by ourselves while the rest of the class ate treats and had a good time. And then try to feel normal when a fellow student asked us why we didn’t celebrate with them.
Try explaining that it was because of the beheadings when you are 8 years old. Or try to feel what it’s like when someone asks you what you got for your birthday, and you had to mumble, “Nothing, because we don’t celebrate.” It’s a special kind of hell being different for reasons that don’t make any sense.
It Gets Easier?
After graduating high school and entering the workforce either part-time or full-time (the Jehovah’s Witness religion profoundly discourages higher education), we would spend those hours with people who were now adults. If our job was in a non-office environment, it was less likely that an actual party would occur in our workplace.
If we did have an office job, then as an adult, we would still have to try to avoid the celebrations in the break room. It was a bit easier if we could beg off by saying we had work to finish up. But trying to evade the person carrying around the card to be signed by everyone in the office could pose a challenge.
While we may have explained several times that we didn’t celebrate birthdays because of our religion, our coworkers really didn’t understand, and probably just thought us a bit anti-social.
If we got jobs in customer service, such as waiting tables, then it could definitely become a problem when a group came to our place of business specifically to celebrate on of their birthdays. I personally remember trying to smile and be polite as possible while expressly NOT wishing my customer “Happy Birthday.” It caused some consternation and more than once affected my tip. Some JW’s even lost their jobs because they refused to join in singing the Happy Birthday song to customers.
I was 45 years old when I finally decided to leave that religion behind. However, when you walk away from the JW sect, you not only stop attending the church meetings, you also stop having association with any family or friends who are still part of it. Because THEY stop having anything to do with YOU.
So, if you’re lucky, you make new friends. And perhaps you begin to do things socially with them, and that can feel a bit weird at first, because before, you rarely did anything socially with people outside the religion. So the conversations are usually very different than what you are used to.
In addition, even though you have physically left the religion, some of the beliefs and dogma are so ingrained in your psyche that you may have difficulty being involved in things that normal people do. I remember feeling very strange singing “Happy Birthday” to a friend for the first time.
And when my own birthday would roll around, I really had no idea what to do. Should I let everyone know that my turn was coming up? That felt like I was soliciting gifts or for them to plan a party for me – not a comfortable thing for me. Should I throw my own event and invite people. Again, that felt strangely like attention-seeking.
So, I would just keep treating it like any other day. Nothing special about it. Except, I knew that it should be. So, when I spent my evening alone at home, those feelings of not being included as a child kept coming up. I resented the fact that I didn’t even know how to have a proper birthday for myself. It was quite depressing.
It was my second year out of the religion before I got to taste a cake with candles and my name on it for the first time. I was scheduled to attend a dinner party that was a completely separate event, but another friend who was attending knew it was my birthday. She brought a cake, candles, and a card for others to sign.
I got to stand there and listen to other people sing my name in the third line of the song while looking at me. Then, I was asked to blow out the candles. I was trying really hard to look cool, but inside I was fighting off tears. This was for ME? I managed to put out the flames with my breath and not get spittle on the frosting.
The year after that, I found myself a stranger in a strange land. I had treated myself to a two-week vacation to southeast Asia, with stops in Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. My birthday fell on a Sunday while I was in Pattaya, Thailand, doing a three-day, open-water SCUBA certification course.
The only person I was familiar with at all was my Australian diving instructor. My final certification dive took place on the day of my birthday. It was a great feeling for me to have accomplished this. In my conversations with my instructor, the fact that I was turning 48 came up. He suggested that I go get myself a “soapy” massage at one of the local brothel-type massage parlors.
While it was a tempting thought, I dismissed it out of hand. Instead, after taking a long nap, I returned to a more reputable massage shop that I had visited two days before after doing some strenuous pool exercised during my first day of training. The girl there had done an excellent job and had NOT offered any “special” services.
She once again did very professional work on my aching muscles and while she did, we talked about our lives a bit. She discovered it was my birthday and was surprised that I was as old as stated. Then it was my turn to be shocked when she said she was 46. Because she didn’t look over 30. Long story short, I asked her out to dinner, we sat in a bar while we drank and talked more, then she took me home. No cake, no candles, no card, but happy birthday.
Since then, my other birthdays have been a mixed bag. One year, I was again traveling, this time in Luang Prabang, Laos. My fellow travelers at the guesthouse, all strangers, went to dinner with me, then supplied some donuts with candles. The next year, with nothing in the works because I was still too shy to ask people I knew if they wanted to have a party, I threw my own little surprise party with my English students by purchasing a cake and ordering pizza delivery.
Two years ago, I found myself doing nothing again. I’m pretty sure I spent the evening watching Netflix alone in my apartment and answering birthday wishes that were coming in on my Facebook feed. Honestly, that’s the only reason that I know when my friends’ birthdays are. And I feel guilty if I miss sending them an electronic greeting.
Last year, a couple of my students joined me, along with a friend who was visiting from the States, and a young woman whom I had met on Tinder a few weeks before. We went to a Thai-style Korean BBQ place where it was hot, noisy, and had food not quite to my liking. One of my students did bring a cake, however. Chocolate.
How Do I Make My Birthday Special?
Last week while sitting on the beach in Da Nang as the sun went down, a young man, Adrian, who we had previously met recognized us and approached to say hello and have a chat. It turned out that it was his birthday, and he invited us to join him later with a few friends at a coffee shop/bar that had just reopened after the lockdown.
My girlfriend (last year’s Tinder date) decided that she wasn’t feeling much like going out, but I wanted to get out and enjoy myself a bit. I walked over to the venue a few blocks away and was surprised to see about 20 people already there. Most of these people were expats, staying temporarily in Vietnam. There were a few locals as well. But few of them were long-time friends with each other.
I stayed long enough to drink one beer and witness the cake showing up and to join in the singing. By this time, the crowd had swelled to around 35-40 people. I found myself wondering how this party had come together. Who planned it? Did Adrian just put it out there to everyone he met that it was his birthday, please show up? Or did someone else do the heavy lifting? What do I do to make my birthday feel like this?
Salvaging the Day
This story began with me feeling sorry for myself because I allowed my mind to dwell on feelings of neglect and resentment. There was nothing in the Airbnb rental apartment for my girlfriend and I to eat, so we really had no choice but to go out for dinner.
We had decided to go to a small burger joint that not only had good food, but offered a free burger on your birthday. Why not? So we walked the 3 1/2 kilometers, following the beach road to get to the restaurant. As we walked, I tried to explain to her how I was feeling and the resentment that I still maintained about my lack of experience in how to deal with my own birthday.
When we ordered, I still felt weird about telling the staff that it was my birthday. It seemed to me like trying to take greedy advantage of someone’s hospitable offer. I ended up ordering two burgers for myself, one free, and one that I paid for along with fries and beer, because that made me feel less guilty about getting the complimentary one.
We ended up hanging out for a long time, even after we finished eating. Talking to the staff and other customers was a treat, especially for me, as it still felt like a novel thing after a long month of limited contact with other people.
And then, because sometimes I can be a glutton, but rationalized it because I hadn’t eaten anything else all day until dinner, I took my girlfriend to another place that served Chicago-style deep dish pizza. It was quite good, and we enjoyed most of it before boxing the rest to take home (It didn’t make it home). I discovered that I felt better, less depressed.
Maybe it was the enjoyable food. Maybe it was the stimulating conversation at both eating establishments. Maybe it was all of the messages pouring in from friends all over the world whom had been notified by Zuckerberg’s infernal time-wasting app that Bob’s birthday was TODAY.
After getting back to the apartment and showering the sweat from my body, I spent the next few hours acknowledging well-wishers and reconnecting with a few of them in brief conversations. And then I finished this story. It was a good birthday after all. And this story is the gift I give myself.