Friday, September 25, 2015

Birthdays and Deathdays: Why Birthdays are Worth Celebrating

Today is my birthday.  In a world with an unseemly amount of suffering and disappointment (and that’s just high school) I think birthdays are worth celebrating.  Another year older.  Another year wiser, or at least closer to being of an age where people will assume you’re wise. A birthday represents another year of life, but also another year closer to death.

At 39 I’m just about middle aged, statistically speaking.  According to the 2011 US Social Security Actuarial Table I’m almost exactly middle aged with a life expectancy of 39.39 more years. 

Academic types often refer to historical figures with dates after their names.  Some of my favorite philosophers and science fiction authors, for instance, would be referred to as such: Socrates (470-399 BCE), Hypatia (c. 350-415 CE), Jayarāśi (c. 770-830 CE), David Hume (1711-1776), Octavia Butler (1947-2006), Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008), Iain M. Banks (1954-2013), etc.  This convention allows us to place these figures in their historical contexts, but it also allows us to reflect on a fact of human life: it comes to an end.

As the Stoic philosopher Seneca (4-65 CE) says, the problem with life isn’t so much that it’s short but that we waste so much of the time we do have.  As the Buddha (who lived sometime between the 500s and 300s BCE) said, sickness, old age, and death are inescapable facts of the human condition; trying to deny them is a folly that leads to suffering.  

Epicurus (341-270 BCE) had perhaps the best advice for one prone to morbidly contemplating mortality on one’s birthday. When you’re alive, you’re not dead, and when you’re dead you don’t exist to worry about anything.  So, Epicurus councils, death is nothing to worry about for either the living or for the dead.  As Bill and Ted would then council us: Party on, dudes!

The fact that we are alive to experience the beauty, horror, and mystery of the universe is pretty cool. Birthdays are a time to reflect on the incalculably precious privilege of becoming a speck of the universe that, for however short a time, is able to contemplate life, the universe, and everything.  That’s something worth celebrating!  

So happy birthday to me and to you, dear readers, whenever your next birthday may be! 

One of my favorite t-shirts


EDIT (28 Sept. 2015):  I can't believe I forgot to include a link to the best birthday song ever (must be an effect of old age). Here's Weird Al Yankovic's "Happy Birthday!"


7 comments:

  1. Wow, did Epicurus really live a hundred years?!?! He must have enjoyed a lot of moderate food and tranquil companionship with friends in all those years!

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  2. Actually, that's a type-o, which I just changed. I accidentally gave him almost 30 more years of life! If you're still in need of ancient Greek centenarians, I think Gorgias and Democritus are supposed to have lived to be around 100.

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  3. My opinion follows Epicurus most closely. Now I know whom to credit. Somehow, offering an accurate historical figure adds weight to a statement. Admittedly, I'm the first to question the validity of a credited quote or some statistic. Most people pull a stat or percentage out of their butts and are shocked when asked for the source. Guess they watch CNN, MSNBC, Faux Spews... where the interviewer just excepts the bullshit and keeps going.

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    1. Thanks for your comment! If you're looking for the original source, that argument is found in Epicurus's "Letter to Menoeceus." It should be pretty easy to find in any collection of Epicurus's surviving writings or in anthologies of Hellenistic philosophy. I think Epicurus was a pretty clever chap!

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    2. Thank you for the follow up. Will follow the lead you've provided. Cheers.

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    3. Thank you for the follow up. Will follow the lead you've provided. Cheers.

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  4. My opinion follows Epicurus most closely. Now I know whom to credit. Somehow, offering an accurate historical figure adds weight to a statement. Admittedly, I'm the first to question the validity of a credited quote or some statistic. Most people pull a stat or percentage out of their butts and are shocked when asked for the source. Guess they watch CNN, MSNBC, Faux Spews... where the interviewer just excepts the bullshit and keeps going.

    ReplyDelete