The Un-Birthday

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Your birthday marks the beginning of your time on Earth. But Paul Staley finds something to celebrate in the day before you were born and the day after you’re gone.

This year I started observing, in a quiet, private way, a particular day of the year. It is what I call my un-birthday, the day before I was born.

More than a few decades ago this was the last day before my version of the experience we call life got started. The observance of this date acknowledges that there were a whole lot of days without me in the millennia before I was born, and a lot more to follow after I move on.

I shared this concept one evening at the dinner table and got the immediate feedback that this was more than a little morbid. And yet I’d argue that a two-day observance like this—a celebration of the before and after—is appropriate for those of us who are getting on in years.

As we age our birthdays become an awkward combination of celebration and stunned bewilderment, an occasion to have a party while simultaneously asking yourself, “How did this happen?”

Observing your un-birthday provides a way to sort out and separate these disparate feelings. The day before your birthday is the time to accept that this relentless addition of days has never paused and will, someday, come to an end. It is a time to be humbled by the enormous disparity between the number of days you didn’t or will no longer exist, and that precious span of time we call a life. And based on that, it is the occasion to realize that the time has gone by quickly because it wasn’t really wasn’t all that much time in the first place.

But once you’ve done that you can wake up the next day, watch your odometer click over another notch, and accept this additional year not as a burden but as a gift. If your un-birthday was a quiet pause for reflection, this is the day for candles and sugar, for wine and song. The anxiety and dread? That was yesterday. Now is the time for gratitude. Your lifetime pass to the circus is still valid, so enjoy it, and use it while you can.

With a Perspective, I’m Paul Staley.

Paul Staley lives in San Francisco.