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Monday, December 20, 2010

Happy Birthday to Me?

It's the season of my birth.  From where I type, I am a 30 minute drive from the hospital in which I was delivered unto this world.  Just six days shy of the darkest day of the year, it should come as no surprise that I associate my birthday with short days and cold winter nights.  For as much as I've used my birthday as a time to celebrate, I can't help but use the occasion to pause and reflect.

The salient points of my birth story are:
  • I was born two weeks past my due date and was induced.
  • I might have shared a birthday with my father, but for some reason, the hospital didn't schedule inductions on Saturday, else the 13th would have been my birthday.
  • The 2nd choice was to be the 16th, Beethoven's birthday, but for some other reason, that couldn't happen.
  • It was a snowy evening the 14th and the roads were slick.
  • I was born on December 15th, 1969 at 12:26pm at Windham Memorial Community Hospital in Willimantic, Connecticut. 
  • I weighed 8lbs. 12oz. (or thereabout).
It isn't hyperbole to say that when anyone one of us enters the world, we instantly change the course of humanity.  It isn't the slightest exaggeration to claim that even those that don't enter the world, leave an indelible impression.  When a life ends, there is a void forever left unfilled.  One may continue to lead a rich and full life, but there is still a vacuum, a black hole.

About a month ago, we learned that two sets of parents of children who went to Max's daycare lost their babies.  A couple of weeks ago, a friend's child lost her nearly 5 year battle with cancer.  And just a week ago, a friend from high school lost his 4 day old son.  July 20th, 2009 is my son Leo's birthday.  Technically, it's the day of his death, though we knew he was not living by the 17th.  The days between learning that news and his birth are the most surreal of my now 41 years.  Every time I hear of someone else's loss, I can't help but think about Leo.  The truth is that even when he's not foremost in my mind, he's a fiber of the fabric of me, inseparable from that which is me.  And while I see him as one of the pillars of my person, there are innumerable elements that make me who I am.  But only for a moment.  The fact is as permanent as we view our character, our essence, is ever changing.  We are not the same person we were a year ago, a month ago, yesterday.

All of us are constantly changing.  The person who woke up this morning is not that same person who goes to sleep tonight.  This is both a physical truth (our body does not stop aging, our mind does not stop perceiving), but also a metaphysical one.  From the coffee I consumed today to the audiovisual stimuli I encounter, we are always being shaped, mutated, and altered.  Every single breath we take introduces something new to our bodies.  In actuality there is no permanent self.  And the fact that we eat, drink, and breathe elements of this world, means that we are not part of a whole, but rather that we are all one.  It seems practical to be an individual, to see yourself separate from other people or different from your environment and really that's what most people do most moments of most days.  The ego demands constant satisfaction.  The ego thrives on the memories of the past and the promises or fears of the future. In the present moment, the ego dissolves.  Without an ego to demand attention, we are all free to see the oneness of it all - to see everything as it is.

I've been reading Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, a transcription of several talks given by Shunryu Suzuki, a well known Zen Master who died less two years after I was born.  The book reads like a series of two page reflections on various thoughts about what zazen is, what Buddhism is, what enlightenment is - and often what those things are not.  There are quotes like:

"As soon as you see something, you already start to intellectualize it. As soon as you intellectualize something, it is no longer what you saw."

"When you do something, you should burn yourself completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself."

"Life and death are the same thing. When we realize this fact, we have no fear of death anymore, nor actual difficulty in our life."

"Without accepting the fact that everything changes, we cannot find perfect composure. But unfortunately, although it is true, it is difficult for us to accept it. Because we cannot accept the truth of transience, we suffer."

Though Leo is not present, he is also not absent.  To me, Leo's short 'existence' is a highly concentrated dose of reality.  The truth about Leo, about all of us, is that though we are all temporary, none of us are insignificant.  We should not mistake this to mean that we are important.  To do so is to confuse ego with selflessness.  Leo is always somewhere inside of me.  The same way my parents are a part of me.  The same way that every interaction, every person, every conversation, every love, and every instant of experience is.

As I consider this, understand this, I still can't help but think more about Leo.  I am not going to enter into the whole when life begins debate, but surely Leo, though he never lived a day on this earth, lived and lives on as someone real, someone that existed, that has a lasting impact, not just on the lives of Linda and me, but on our families, and on our friends - and really anyone who happens to learn of him.  And his story is just one of the zillions of events that happen every moment.  

Think of an event that is shared by more than one person.  It could be a concert, a movie, tornado - anything.  As Rashomon shows, everyone has a completely unique interpretation of the same thing.  Two planes hit the World Trade Centers and there's instantly six billion vantages (and the billions more that time will generate), a prism so multifaceted we're all blinded by the separation of light.  Whose interpretation of an event is the right one?  No one's.  It's impossible to be 'right,' because being right requires your ego to validate your perception; it necessitates differentiating your perspective from someone else's and because we know we are not really separate, we cannot really see truth. 

Birthdays are a time to indulge, we think.  We indulge in the celebration of our existence.  We celebrate living another year, the anniversary of our current incarnation.  Our friends and family gather to be thankful for us.  Even if you don't make much of birthdays or downplay their significance, it's difficult to avoid the acknowledgement of 365 more days.  My father turned 75 last week.  A man always interested in numbers, he's claimed for some time now that he plans to only live 1000 months (83 years old, three months and change).  An arbitrary age, but at least a round number of months.  He called me today to wish me a happy birthday and the two of us made note of the age, 41.  He mocked it for its insignificance in the scheme of birthdays, certainly nothing compared to 75.  I highlighted it's uniqueness, divisible only by one and itself - a prime number.

For most of my life, I've reveled in my birthday.  I loved that I could look at a clock and see 12:15 and know that was also my birthday.  I loved being a Sagittarius.  And while I am not yet ready to relinquish my special day, I also am more cognizant that it's self indulgence.  My father-in-law was born on September 11th.  From 2001 onward his special day is a reminder of senseless violence - a day that changed the course of history.  My mom and niece share a birthday, April 20th - which is also Hitler's birthday, and the date of the Columbine school shooting. 

Out of the billions of lives lived, the ones cut short, and of the billions yet to exist; out of the billions of moments that make up the annals of existence, it's quite impressive that we possess these giant egos that compel us to acknowledge a day as significant simply because it's when we were born.  The fact is we are significant and have an impact, no matter how long or short we exist in the minds of others - just not in the obvious ways we commonly consider.  People often strive a lifetime to leave some kind of legacy, but the truth is you only need an instant to make a lasting impression.

So while I celebrate my birthday, and indulge myself with cake, I'll also be swallowing a good portion of humility.