The Privilege of Being Here

My last post, about my nephew Rob’s birthday, got me to thinking. (There are exits all around.) Over a pre-birthday, birthday dinner this past Saturday, Rob acknowledged to me that he actually doesn’t feel very celebratory on his birthday. Actually, neither do I, though birthdays in our family, as in most others, have for years been traditional family occasions. On my own, after our dinner was over, I got to wondering just what the big deal is all about.

The celebration begins in childhood, promoted by parents, and children quickly understand the birthday fete as a celebration of their specialness – what parents want their children to feel about themselves. Quickly enough, too, children come to conceive the birthday as marking their advance in life. They are supposed to (they understand) grow up and mature, become big people, which most of the child wants to happen. (Another part of the child wants to remain a child.) So for children, then, we get it easily enough. They are marching toward their natural goal of adulthood, and the birthday celebrates their progress.

But what about once we reach that stage? Why do we keep celebrating? There may be further age-related goals, like the inheritance at twenty-five (ahh, missed that one) or the plan to run for congress that cannot be fulfilled until thirty, but otherwise, past some point in adulthood that each individual will consider prime (I conceived it, wrongly for me, as thirty-five), it becomes, in various considerations, a downward momentum.

Why, then, do we keep on celebrating?

If you are the naturally celebratory type, like the well-known Julia of this blog (check out her photo gallery above), the happy occasion is like putting on a show was for the 30s Mickey Rooney type. It’s Friday? Let’s have a party! It’s life! Let’s have a party! Let’s celebrate life.

Some of us are less psychologically salubrious, more constitutionally lugubrious.

I’m another year older? Waaahhhh!

One year more of physical decline, one year closer to death – what’s to celebrate? That you’re still alive? Hell, you can do that any day. It doesn’t have to be the one day that reminds you that you’re still alive, but for one year less than you were last year. What’s with that?

Maybe it helps to think more fundamentally, more originally, by which I mean not thinking something new, but thinking about something as if it were new, as if you had never thought about it before. Back in the mid-20th-century heyday of Continental philosophy and of Existentialism, the question of why there is something rather than nothing was considered most fundamental and profound. (Because God created the world, you understand, being a philosophical cheat.) It is rather extraordinary how that question has lost its cogency. Analytic philosophy decided that the question, like all questions not amenable to analytic approaches, is meaningless. The only fields that remained interested in the question were particle physics, cosmology, and theoretical physics. Their considerations are the closest thing we have to what Continental philosophy used to attempt. (Now Continental philosophy concerns itself primarily with counter-intuitions that serve admirably as the bases for disruptive political ideologies, but according to which, by my last count – two billion and proceeding – no one actually lives.) The approach of physicists, however, is decidedly more … physical than philosophical, with a dollop of speculation thrown into the mix once the physical inevitably hits, as seems fitting, a brick wall.

Why we are here. Or maybe, more simply, just that we are here. Seeing, feeling, hearing, imagining. The warmth of the sun on our flesh. The cool of the water. The wind. The sea salt smell. Our consciousness. Aliveness. Love. And maybe the melancholy we have to feel about the inevitable loss of it all – of life – and its final absence, is all that needs to be said about the magnitude of its presence.

Paul Newman, whose name often comes up in these considerations, was, if I have figured it correctly (and I’m quite certain I have) in every genuine, non-hipsterish sense of the word, the coolest physical and astral body to have graced the planet. And in addition to his deep and affecting talents as actor and director, his joy in auto racing, and his political and philanthropic commitments, it turned out he was something of a Bodhisattva as well. It was widely reported after Newman’s death from lung cancer at the age of 83, nearly three years ago, that in the final days of his life, he sat with his daughter one late afternoon in the garden of his Connecticut home and quietly said, “It’s been a privilege to be here.”

Thinking on the subject can’t end so simply, though. There are the tortured, the starved, the enslaved and abused, the beheaded and the crushed lives, and, as Ivan Karamazov complained, the suffering of innocent children. What privilege in that?

All that may be more than one can consider on a birthday – more, no doubt, than most want to, though a few minutes would do no harm and almost surely do a little good. If you’re having a birthday, it may be no privilege for the sufferers of the world – of the suffering beyond redemption – but it is some kind of privilege for you. Thinking about that won’t answer the larger questions, but it will focus us on what Newman seems to have perceived so finally, just as he was about to lose it, about what he had had. That has to be a start.


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5 thoughts on “The Privilege of Being Here

  1. Well, now you’ve got me thinking, Jay. One of the only birthdays I’m set to celebrate is my 60th in November 2012. It will be as much for my brother, who didn’t live to see his 60th, as for me.

  2. I’m with you, Chuck – dinner and a little jazz is a sublime way to mark the occasion.

    Jennifer, I’m still working on the paradox of being glad “I” was born, since, as I see it, there was no “I” beforehand to be born, in which case every “I” has been and will be born, and none will go unborn. If I were you, you’d still be you, and there’d be no I. In one sense, identity is inviolable, in another, meaningless. If I can crack that nut before my end – or maybe be cracked by it – I might actually get something out of it.

    And Poppy – another Bodhisattva.

  3. Very thoughtful piece/peace, Jay…For decades, dinner and a jazz club is all i’ve wanted to do as a celebration…its a good excuse to drag a friend, who otherwise would likely have some excuse to avoid it, along for some music….though i celebrate everyday i can in that way! and yeah, Newman was something else…

  4. I like to be very literal about birthdays, and agree with you that the celebration is not about getting older, but about being grateful you were born at all. I like the way Poppy used to put it, “When you consider the alternative, it’s not so bad.”

    Also, having given birth, my children’s birthdays have allowed me a new perspective. I not only celebrate that they came into this world on that day, but that I made it through the experience! The birthing process is a great metaphor for life. It is messy and painful, and yet somehow you find yourself filled with love and gratitude for the experience.

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