When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools—Shakespeare
Why do we wish people a ‘happy’ birthday? Is it because our births were anything but happy? Would it be better, or at least more accurate, to offer commiserations for the trauma of birth and arrival in the world?
Such thoughts came quickly upon my birthday this year. The day was not a particularly good one for a variety of reasons. Reading a ‘happy birthday’ message from a family member set me to wondering. Perhaps one’s birthday should be a time of melancholy, not happiness.
For the freshly born, birth is dislocation and terror, a primary exercise in separation and solitude, suddenly immersed in the din of extra-uterine life. An awkward awakening.
Is it significant that we mostly have no memory of this occasion? If we remembered this day clearly, would we be so quick to hail it a good one? Must we remain unconscious of the terror of our birth the better to emerge fully into life unencumbered by this memory?
Whatever the case, the first birthday seems far from a happy one.
Our first lesson is the foundation of a lifelong pedagogy. We learn to cry and draw meaning from the tears. From then on, each and every sob is a mourning for this dawn of loss and exile.
Celebrating the gift of life is a later story, propaganda for and by the living long past the time or possible memory of their arrival.
In Oedipus at Colonus, Sophocles wrote of how it is best of all not to be born, and that the next best thing is to die quickly. I am not sure when I first came upon these lines, but I do recall the way these words initially unsettled me. As a child, then as a maudlin adolescent too full of thoughts of death and dying, I was rattled by the thought that anyone could wish not to be born, let alone yearn for a quick death.
Sophocles possible source was an older Greek poet called Theognis of Megara:
Best of all for mortal beings is never to have been born at all
Nor ever to have set eyes on the bright light of the sun
But, since he is born, a man should make utmost haste through the gates of Death
And then repose, the earth piled into a mound round himself.
Theognis himself may have been citing or paraphrasing an even older saying. Certainly, the tragedy of life and the living was hardly the invention of the tragedians, snaking back through the written word and speech to the first dim spark of reflection and realisation. Before Gilgamesh mourned Enkidu, what obliterated progenitors called to mind the nothingness that precedes and undergirds this life? Is it this dream of oblivion that marks out the human—the first thought, the birth of abstraction, the idea of death?
Death always happens now, not later. As Hegel averred: the moment of our birth is the moment of our death—two points of a single line. It will come upon us, and we will have no choice in the matter. This will be our death, the inescapable instant. And yet this will not be an experience so much as the end of experience, as Maurice Blanchot argued.
Perhaps it is this that we should wish happiness for—the approaching end. Each birthday a countdown to the inevitable, the impossible. The return of blessed nonexistence.
“And with strange aeons even death may die.”
Happy Deathday everybody!
 Here I cannot help but agree with the old Korean custom of counting the day of birth as the first birthday, rather than birthday zero—as it is effectively counted in the rest of the world.
 Theognis 425–8. For this translation, see Wikipedia entry on Theognis, linked above.
 Robert Fagles in Sophocles, The Three Theban Plays, Penguin Books, 1984, p. 273.