When I was in the 7th grade, about ten minutes before the first bell was due to ring, I stood outside the double doors leading to the hallway of my locker. One of my classmates approached and asked me what I was doing just standing there.
“I’m giving my friends time to surprise me,” I answered confidently.
“Huh?” he gaped.
“It’s my birthday,” I explained, “So I know they’re decorating my locker, and I just want to be out of the way until they do.”
He said nothing as he walked through the doors behind me. Just as I set my thoughts back on my daydreams, imagining balloons and ribbons, he burst back through the doors, laughing.
“There’s no one at your locker! There’s no one there,” he laughed so hard, he snorted.
My heart sank. I gulped and gazed through the dirty rectangular glass embedded in the thickly painted blue door. He was right. There was no one there.
I went inside. My heart danced in my throat as I turned the combination on my barren locker, its scratched metal surface screaming with rejection. I spent hours on the verge of tears until, finally, my friends figured out what had happened. At lunch, one of them distracted me while the other smothered my locker door with construction paper and pictures of Eminem.
I remember feeling a little better, but the damage had been done. I realized that day how distant I was from these people I called my friends. They all went to each other’s houses regularly, participated on the same sports teams, and lived in the same neighborhoods. I was the occasional friend who was occasionally allowed out of the house. The one who would occasionally make them laugh. The one who never felt important.
Birthday disappointment. This had happened before, like the birthday party I had in grade 5 where I ended up crying because someone had to leave and I took it really personally. And it would happen again. For a majority of the years I lived with my parents, I spent my birthday grounded.
After I left home, my birthday became a day for two things. One, the people in my life, having heard my sad birthday stories, would try to make me feel special. This seldom worked as they’d planned. Because I was so convinced that people would never do their best for me, never try their hardest, never give their all—I could never feel their intentions. I only felt my assumptions.
The second thing that would happen is I would get unbelievably drunk and pass out, black out, or, as happened a whopping two times, get a concussion. Either way, I’d wake up the next day with a headache and a glass of disappointment.
I had an awakening a few months before my birthday in 2012. I had changed drastically in a short period of time. I had quit drinking. That evening, I spent sober at a bowling alley with friends who all seemed like they had somewhere else to be. It was Friday night. I ended up paying the bill. I got in a fight with my best friend at the time that was so damaging, our relationship never recovered. It was not a pleasant day.
Since then, I’ve been learning about myself and learning about expectations. Last year, for my birthday, I focused on giving and universal love. This was a step in the right direction. A few weeks ago, I shared the story of how I was able to maintain peace of mind while making a sacrifice by focusing on my own feeling of self-approval instead of awaiting the approval of others.
Well, my birthday was last week. The week leading up to the day, I vaguely noticed that everyone was being a little distant, but that was understandable. We were still at Jamie’s family’s house. His mom had just been released from the hospital and her meds were giving her awful side effects. His brother has a business to run. His sister works. People get tired. People get busy.
A few days before my birthday, I got to thinking about the meaning of this day and my relationship to it. I realized that this day, more than a celebration of my individuality, is an opportunity for me to be grateful for existing. I wrote a Facebook post about this that I scheduled to go out on the 1st. Here’s that post:
I went to a yoga class. We had lunch at an awesome eco-friendly café. We went to a driving range, did mini putt. We walked by the side of the river.
A few hours before sunset, a little voice in my head said, “No one bothered to plan much for you today.” But it didn’t hurt. It had no meaning. I said to myself, “No, I guess they didn’t, and maybe that would have felt nice, but this feels nice too. Having an adventure. Feeling gratitude to be alive. Appreciating my life instead of waiting to be appreciated by others.”
I was at peace. It felt strange to be at peace like this, because I’d never before had a birthday that was not tainted by the heavy disappointment of broken expectations. Because I hadn’t formulated any. I expected nothing.
As we walked up to the house, I was thinking of how I could take a shower really quickly because we were running late. When we walked in, there was darkness, silence, confusion. And then… “Surprise!”
There they were—Jamie’s whole family, surrounded by the dishes they’d been secretly cooking, the presents they’d been secretly planning, and the card they’d been secretly making. We all laughed together as they told me about how they’d been sneaking around planning this evening, and I told them how I had rationalized their strange behavior.
After the stories were told, and I had time to admire the gigantic card they’d hand-made for me, I went to go have a shower while they finished dinner. In there, alone with my thoughts, I finally realized what had just happened.
I noticed how I felt. I feel deeply appreciated. And I felt an even deeper appreciation for the efforts of these people who are not my blood family, but who have embraced me with open hearts. Finally, I had a birthday that was full of love, not disappointment.
Then, I realized why I felt this way. I had arrived full of self-approval, full of self-love, and without expectations. In that state, I could feel connection, excitement, gratitude. If I had been disappointed, I could not have felt those feelings. Just like getting my locker decorated at lunchtime felt like too little too late, this would have felt the same.
If I starve myself of connection to the world and then put the responsibility for bridging that connection into other people’s pockets, no gift can ever be enough. I am the one who makes myself ready to receive—by not expecting to.
This realization reminded me of birthdays past and the efforts my friends and lovers had made. A surprise hiking trip in some underground caves. A scavenger hunt with clues to look for gifts. Rose petals and a poem. And even those Eminem posters.
People had been trying to appreciate me all along. I just couldn’t feel it. Because the truth is—just like a flower cannot grow in moldy soil no matter how much sunlight or water we give, feeling appreciated by people cannot grow in disappointment no matter how generous those people are. And just like moldy soil happens for a reason, so does disappointment. It comes from expectations.
When I woke up the next morning, on Facebook, I found my community full of warm wishes, heartfelt letters, heartwarming videos, and even a piece of birthday art! And let me tell you—I felt the power of those gifts. Because I didn’t expect them. Because I had tended to my inner soil.
So I finally got to have the feeling I wanted, and I realized that I could have had it long ago. No one made me feel appreciated. People extended their hands, like eager dance partners, towards me, and instead of waiting to be claimed as the “Belle of the Ball,” I just danced. We danced. Together. That’s where the feeling came from.
Before anyone could give that feeling to me, I had to give it to myself.
And thank goodness I did.
Thank you, to all my amazing dance partners, for an incredible birthday. It was, honestly, the best I’ve ever had.
(Photo by Will Clayton)