A friend of mine had his birthday recently. We went to college for a year together, but I had to leave after that year because of my struggle with depression. While I was at school with him, it was obvious that he was going to accomplish a lot in his four years there. He was easy to talk to, funny, determined, and very business-minded. By the time I had left, he was already a prominent member of several on-campus organizations even though he was only a freshman. Not to mention, he was committed to his major and had already declared a minor and had a well-paying job lined up for the summer, no small feat for a college kid. I, on the other hand, was finishing my junior year having been rejected from every campus organizations I applied to but one (the grand total of rejections came to at least eight), and now I was giving up my overarching dream: being at the college at all.
The rejections kept coming for me, even after I left what I later figured out was a toxic environment, but for him (from what I’ve been able to gather), the success continued. Officer positions in clubs, music performances, and general popularity. I was happy for him and generally not particularly surprised because I know he was a go-getter (and the population of my school tended to give subtly preferential treatment to good-looking men). He was a good guy and very capable and needed the experience to succeed in the business world where he was headed. But I was also a bit grieved considering my own position in light of his success; it was yet another reminder of all I hadn’t been able to achieve when I had been at school and of the dream I had ultimately had to give up because of circumstances beyond my control. I, too, was capable, compassionate, driven, ambitious, and organized. I had organized church events, taught classes, and ran Bible study groups in high school. I had continued trying out for organizations even after multiple rejections and trying to make friends after multiple failures, each more heart-wrenching than the next. But nobody really gave a damn about that when it was me doing them.
So when my friend’s birthday came around, I had bittersweet feelings; hopeful for his future, but also a bit rueful of my past. I suppose that seems selfish, but I’ve come to consider such emotions to be part of the grieving process; you have to work through them and examine them in order to one day move on, not push them aside. With this in mind, I felt tempted to accompany my note of congratulations with a reminder to give thanks. I wanted him to know what a blessing the opportunities he had were. I wanted him to be thankful for the relationships, the events, the busyness, the responsibilities, the commitments because when you’re in the midst of them, it’s easy to get lost in ticking boxes off of your to-do list, complaining how much there is to work on, and forget what a privilege it is to have that work. Because other people covet that work, those friendships, those opportunities.
There are many people who can’t have your blessedly busy life because of lack of funds, ill health, disability, discrimination, previous abuse, mental illness, gender norms, not having access to opportunities, etc. In America, we like to assert that these things don’t matter and can’t prevent you from succeeding, that anyone who works hard enough can get where they want to go, and to some extent our nation does have a blessed amount of social mobility and opportunity that others nations don’t, but the reality is that people are still quite limited and a lot of success can be due to luck or traits that you’re lucky to have. Some people just can’t make it, no matter how hard they try. Some people just aren’t popular. Some people get the short end of the stick. Someone has to.
I wanted to tell him to give thanks because you also never know when good things will be taken from you. Life can change gradually or in the blink of an eye so that one day you’re sitting in the midst of some daily activity and you suddenly wonder, “What the heck am I doing here?” A car accident, a change in brain chemicals, a baby, a death, a traumatic incident…You never know what might come around the bend and change your life forever, shattering your life expectations and throwing your life completely off of the trajectory you had carefully planned for it. I wish I had savored the time I had at school. Even if I had only a few friends, it was so good to be close to other people, yet the people I knew barely acknowledged that, spending their time complaining about being at school. Now, of course, I have been able to direct my life onto a new path and am recovering from being thrown off of the old one, so there is always hope, but it can be wise to keep in mind that life isn’t static.
I wanted to tell him to slow down and enjoy the friendships, the everyday simplicities, the quick chats between classes…the things I missed when I indulged in self-pity. And I wanted to tell him to take things easier and take care of himself; it’s great to achieve, but I learned the hard way that you have to be careful not to let that lead to burn out. I waited until I crashed and burned to take care of my mental health, and then I would try to get back in the full swing of life as soon as possible and crash again because I hadn’t given myself time to recover. I wish I had sought counseling long before I first started in order to help manage stress, anxiety, and other tricky emotions and live an in-balance life that I had time to enjoy. I see so many people milking themselves for all they're worth, hurtling towards some unknown finish line on the distant horizon, seeming to love to hate their life....Why? What's the point? As someone who has spent time genuinely hating her life against her will, wanting to want to live but not being able to see the point of it, I hope other people take time to see the preciousness of it all.
But who wants to be the foreboding old lady, spoiling the fun with admonitions to remember to “be grateful…you’ll miss this when you’re older!” And who wants to make someone else’s big day about their own grief.
So I just typed out, “Happy birthday!”