Checkpoints and Where We Went Wrong

Birthday parties are weird. It’s like, “hey, you wanna hang out and celebrate me for existing? Bring gifts and we’ll eat cake with candles and bits of my spit. RSVP so I know how much spit cake to get.” Odd. The only reason I’ve been thinking about birthdays is because mine is a few days away.

We have a lot of annual checkpoints in our lives: new year’s, the first day of school, yearly checkups at the doctor’s office or the dentist (where we lie about flossing). Unless you’re a twin, birthdays are a more personal checkpoint. How far have you come since your last birthday? How have you grown?

When we were younger, birthdays, meant something more. Not only would our age increase, we’d literally grow. We’d get smarter, stronger, better each year. Annual checkpoints in general meant something more as children, and perhaps it’s because we made a bigger deal out of them. In school, each grade presents a unique set of challenges we must complete before moving forward. High school even attaches names to grades, like a ranking system of accomplishments. College gets a bit dicier: some students attend part-time, others take gap years, and plans change halfway through. Still, changing schedules and progression of classes give the impression of moving forward. You complete prerequisites, take harder classes and slowly make headway. Late at night when I was in college, after spending hours editing a group paper until my eyes burned out of their sockets, I’d look up my unofficial transcript and think about all the classes behind me. It didn’t matter what they were as much as my progression. I was moving forward.

Like many twenty-somethings, I’m not where I thought I’d be at my age. I’d assumed by the time I’d hit my mid-twenties, a clear, successful career path would manifest before me and I’d be scoping out houses along the yellow brick road. I didn’t get it all wrong: I’m married to the love of my life and we can afford to live in our own apartment without any additional roommates, so that’s pretty great. Still, though, and it’s that “still” that bothers me. There’s always something missing regardless of how much you’ve accomplished and it’s this relentless pursuit of tomorrow that gets in the way of enjoying today.

Adult birthdays lose the shimmer. We age a year but the world around us tends to be the same. Same job, same home, same friends and family. Some of those things change throughout the years, some you would never expect, but it’s not the big hurrah we had when we were children. Birthdays come and go but we feel stuck. Childhood is running laps around a racetrack but adulthood is a treadmill. We’re just trying to stay on.

Perhaps our biggest pitfall with checkpoints is our expectations, specifically the unmet ones. Expectations themselves aren’t bad by any means. They’re our standards, our guidelines for decision making. The issue with expectations is when they rely on forces we can’t control. You can’t control whether you’ll get the job, but you can decide to apply and work towards it. You can’t control when you’ll make friends or meet, “the one,” but you can put yourself out there and be open to deep, lasting relationships. You can’t control whether your offer will be accepted on your dream home, but you can eat canned vegetables indefinitely and pick up that extra shift saving up for a down payment.

As my birthday approaches, I’m grateful for what has stayed the same. I’ve got the same friends, but I know them better now than ever before. I’ve got the same job, but I have a healthier relationship with work and setting boundaries. I’m in the same apartment, but I have a few plants I’ve kept alive for over a year and I’m quite happy with that. The changes may not be as obvious as growing a few inches or getting braces off, but I’m satisfied with my progress and encouraged to continue growing.

Here’s to spit cake and setting realistic goals.

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