Birthing And Birth Anniversary: A Family And Societal Affair
(A Birthday Reflection)
by Danny Castillones Sillada
La complejidad de la infancia y la inocencia, photo collage by Danny Castillones Sillada
“One of the signs of passing youth is the birth of a sense of fellowship with other human beings as we take our place among them.”
~ Virginia Woolf
WHEN ONE OPENS a birthday present, millions of neurons are fired up in the human brain, triggering an orgasmic feeling of excitement and anticipation. However, as soon as the gift is unwrapped, what can be found inside may no longer excite the recipient but the thought of being remembered and given on a very special day of one’s life. Consequently, the process of opening the gift indicates that an act of ‘giving and receiving’ has already been consummated.
Not all gifts, though, can give pleasure or happiness to the birthday celebrant. Some recipients may expect too much from the giver, while the latter can also expect the same that the act of munificence will bring satisfaction to the recipient. On some occasions, some recipients would ask the giver what to give based on individual needs, while the giver can also precondition the mind of the recipient, in a diffident manner, what he or she can afford to give.
Is giving a gift, in general, a duty or a privilege, or a symbolic gesture that the giver, regardless of its content, cares or values the recipient? Can one’s birthday be incomplete if it is bereft of presents, opulent party, or people to greet and revel with the birthday celebrant? If a birthday celebration is inherent in any culture, what ontological symbol or meaning does it signify: Is it a private or a social affair?
This writer grew up in a remote town in Mindanao with no distinction between the “rich” and the “poor.” In fact, during those younger years of my life, I did not know if we were poor or affluent; these two contrasting terms were alien to me from childhood to my adolescent life. Although, my late father (he died when I was nine years old) had furniture business, and he and my mother (she died in 2008) owned several hectares of agricultural land at that time, yet we lived a very simple life in a simple home with a simple dream.
Anniversaries, particularly “birthdays,” were just an ordinary event except the unfolding of a new day amidst the melodic sound of hoyden birds in the orchard and the discordant raucous in the neighborhood -- no candles to blow or birthday cake to slice, no friends to invite or birthday gift to unwrap. We were certainly aware, though, that it was a “birthday” by one of our family members, and knowing that it was, some time somewhere in the past, a simultaneous historic event happened: our mother had labored and delivered a new life, and that life was either one of my siblings or mine.
I did not yearn for a lavish celebration throughout my childhood and teenage life because I did not experience, since I became conscious of this world, that a “birthday” should be celebrated that way. I never expected my parents either to make my birthday a special family event, because they did not raise me, as an eldest child, to expect something other than what we already had on the table. Instead, they taught me how to celebrate my own life on a day-to-day basis, as a borrowed existence that could be taken away from me in an instance.
(How cruel and humiliating human life must be, I thought at a very young age, because I was given the consciousness to know and embrace my own existence only to be taken away from me later.)
Did I regret, with bitterness in my heart, for not having a colorful birthday celebration, something that I could reminisce and share with pride to my children? Honestly, I did not, and I would never resent for being deprived of such experience! How could I regret something that I did not know, nor yearn for something that I did not have?
However, as I grew older, I realized that there is something in the customary birthday celebration (being surrounded by family members, friends, relatives and neighbors), which is more sublime and symbolic than its empirical significance. The gathering during a birthday celebration signifies a communal act. Whether the celebration is simple or grandeur is irrelevant, it is not the material content that matters but the act of participation and involvement in one’s life.
“When life is conceived,” to quote my philosophical essay “The Poetic Ascent of Hope Beyond Life” (Manila Bulletin, 2010), “it is not conceived by parents alone, it is also conceived by the society where individual existence is delivered, lived, and nurtured. There is a consensual responsibility in bringing life into this world, which is participated not only by family members, but also by the community or society as a whole.”
The primal instinct of survival dictates that all animal species on this planet, particularly humans, must conceive and give birth to an offspring no matter how favorable or repugnant the surrounding circumstance or condition is. A human life that is conceived and delivered is the fruit of a ‘social contract’ between a couple who vowed to care and love each other in sickness or in health. And as a ‘contract,’ it is ratified by the commitment and involvement by both the family and the society to raise an offspring as the continuation of humanity.
No one can choose to whom or to which parents or society to be born, or when or where to be born, in a bamboo bed or in a cradle bedecked with gold and diamond. Neither one can choose whether to exist or not to exist, because that ‘fundamental choice’ is inherently contingent upon the human circumstances within a particular society. The only choice that a human being has is to live within the perimeters of one’s existence, i.e., family, community or society.
The family, as the smallest unit of the society, caters to the birthing of an offspring as an intrinsic role in delivering and nurturing an individual life. A society begins within a family and, by its own ontological purpose and reason, serves and protects the ‘Summum Bonum’ or the highest good of every family member. Society exists because of family, and family exists because it is indispensable in conceiving and raising humanity.
“The society,” to continue my quote on the same essay, “brings humanity together for a certain purpose and meaning, and humanity creates society to nurture and embrace that same purpose and meaning. The failure of the society to provide the intrinsic values of living a harmonious life is also the failure of every individual to live what is worth living or dying for in the same society that he or she embraces to live.”
Hence, the birthing of an individual, as much as the birth anniversary, is not just a family event but also a societal affair. A birthday is celebrated not because one is capable of spending a pompous party, but as a renewal of commitment to live an individual existence with others. The birth anniversary is a reminder that, once, a life was conceived, delivered, and preordained to be lived and shared within a particular community or society.
Not everyone can afford or has the luxury to celebrate a birthday. Not everyone has received a birthday present on one’s birthday. Not everyone has a family or friends to greet or throw a party on one’s birthday. Not everyone has outlived everyone to celebrate more birthdays. But everyone has the capability to live long enough to share and make one’s life fruitful and meaningful with other birthday celebrants.
The first time I had blown candles on a birthday cake happened when I was already in my late 30s during my one-man show in Metro Manila at the Ricco-Renzo Gallery. Jessica, the daughter of gallery owners Paulito and his wife, the late Offy Garcia, a lovely couple who gave me a break as a professional artist, surprised me at the opening of my show.
When we were about to formally open the exhibit, the lights suddenly went off and the singing of “Happy Birthday” reverberated through the walls where my paintings hanged and dangled.
I was flabbergasted and teary-eyed!
When the lights were turned on, I was so embarrassed because my tears were copiously dripping from my eyes down to my reddened cheeks. It was my first birthday celebration surrounded by my family, friends, guests and colleagues. I did not know what to say, or how to react. All I knew, then, that that gesture of celebrating my birthday by someone melted my heart and made me feel a very special person in the world.
For a while, I indulged on that exhilarating moment, as though time was suspended within the framed colors and forms of my art. On the other hand, I could feel that throbbing pinch in my soul, as if I did not want to relinquish my ‘innocence’ for not having been given a birthday celebration throughout my life until that moment, but it was inevitable. It slowly slithered and billowed away after I reluctantly blew the candles on my first birthday cake!
© Danny Castillones Sillada
How to cite this essay:
Sillada, Danny Castillones. “Birthing And Birth Anniversary: A Family And Societal Affair (A Birthday Reflection).” Manila Bulletin (Lifestyle: Arts & Culture), 7 May 2012. Print.