If we can instead tap into their potential for delight -- the way kids experience them everywhere -- the rewards can be rich indeed. "I like to make a fuss, and the one year I skipped celebrating, I wound up feeling sad about it," says Melissa Sandor, a fundraising consultant who lives in New York City. "So last year, I went to dinner with friends. Someone brought sparklers, and when we lit them, you could see delight on the face of every single adult in the restaurant. We were all transformed into children. I had a ball."
Treating that one day as the sugary rose on the year's cake, an orgy of wish fulfillment, ego stroking, and gluttony, is exactly the sort of childish behavior we should refuse to outgrow, says Sheenah Hankin, PhD, author of Complete Confidence: Playing the Game of Life with a Winning Hand (Regan, 2004). "Your birthday is a day to celebrate the year gone by in whatever way that feels special to you, glory in what you've achieved, and toast the year that lies ahead," Hankin says.
Why is it so hard for us grown-ups to wallow in the cheeky, sneaky pleasures of blowing out a birthday candle or delighting in a brand-new trinket? After all, this is a time when many of us are abandoning society's fixed ideas about what any given age is "supposed" to look like, feel like, and signify. We live longer than any previous generation. We're far more health- and fitness-conscious. The smoke-and-mirror effects of wrinkle creams and cosmetic surgery have blurred reality even more. Could it possibly matter how many candles are sparkling on the birthday cake when every 40-year-old first-time mother, every 50-year-old college freshman, every 60-year-old marathon biker expands our understanding and experience of age?
Milestones are always tricky and always will be. When we're young, birthdays serve as reminders of imminent adulthood and all of its intoxicating freedoms -- "I'm 16, now I can drive" and "I'm 18, now I can vote." Once we settle into midlife, birthdays are reminders, no matter how positive our attitude toward aging, of less exciting markers. It can all be a little stunning, as when the day arrives that you definitely can't read the menu without glasses...your doctor or boss turns out to be younger than you are...you realize the guy standing behind the Starbucks counter isn't flirting with you at all but with your 13-year-old daughter.
Everyone brings to birthdays a perfectly normal human vanity. And even as we compare notes on this astounding and mysterious journey, we can't help but be anything other than our own idiosyncratic selves, variously insisting that 40 was a cakewalk and 50 a shock -- or was it the other way around?
The philosopher Kierkegaard's famous observation that we live life forward but understand it backward is a birthday paradox we're all destined to appreciate. "I have this photo of myself on the beach in a bikini from the summer I turned 40," says 48-year-old writer Fran Jacobs. "I remember hating this picture. I thought my thighs were too heavy and my stomach wasn't flat enough. Today I look at that picture and think, God, I look great! No, I didn't look 18 -- when you're 18, you're a miracle of nature -- but at 40 I had a nice body and didn't even know it." Others cling to the thought that we'll never look as good as we do on this birthday right now -- until we get to our next birthday and think exactly the same thing.
In other words, age is in the eye of the birthday beholder. "When I was 38, the terrible year of my divorce, I felt ancient," says a friend. "Now I'm 48 but feel light years younger because I'm so much happier." And then there's my favorite birthday mind-bender: Another dear friend, this one in her late 60s, confided in me that she routinely adds five years to her age and, as a consequence, is always being told how wonderful she looks.