June 11, 2017

I Stopped Praying & Saying Happy Birthday for the same Reason.

I am a heathen—but that’s not why I stopped praying or posting Facebook birthday messages. 

We live in a time when there’s just so much to do, especially online. Most of us have a Facebook account—it’s almost criminal not to have one. It’s handy for staying connected to people who live far away, and let’s be honest, we use it to stalk each other.

We’ve passed that time, about seven years ago, when it was still awkward to pretend we didn’t know everything about someone’s engagement, divorce, weekend plans, or last night’s dinner when we bumped into them in person. That silly dance where we both feigned surprise when we heard the newsworthy details of each other’s lives.

“You’re in a relationship? That’s great!” What about the juicy details of your last messy breakup? I thought you were such a cute couple!

“I had no idea you were just in Hawaii!” It’s your third trip this year. How do you get all the vacation time?

I, for one, am happy to be past this juvenile denial. I often start sentences when I see friends in real life with, “Oh, I saw your post. Your new puppy is adorable!”

A few months ago, I made a new rule for myself: I wouldn’t post birthday greetings to friends on Facebook, unless I planned to call or spend the day with them. If they fell into that category, I usually called, texted, or visited them. Sometimes I still posted a birthday message—but not always.

Why would I make such an arbitrary distinction?

Guilt. The same guilt that convinced me to stop praying.

My parents chose to forgo any kind of Christian baptism for myself and my brothers. We didn’t attend church or adhere to any religious precepts, except the universal: Be kind and treat others with compassion.

My immediate family was not religious, but a few members of my extended family were. That meant our souls were ripe for saving, and I became the designated child to save.

I’m not sure how my brothers escaped the occasional awkward Sunday morning “sitting on a pew in stiff clothing amongst strangers.” Maybe they were better at evading the weekly phone call asking about our Sunday plans. I’m a terrible liar. There are only so many excuses a child can think of before they relent to the inevitable.

Throughout my early teen years, I would occasionally try on Christian beliefs to see if they fit, kind of like I used to do with my mom’s wedding dress. Maybe I’ve grown into it now? And each time I would realize, nope, not my size.

This would usually coincide with the summer basketball camp that I attended. I would spend a week with my team, surrounded by Christian iconography, including evening Bible study and a public abstinence pledge. I’m still unsure of the connection between sex and basketball, but it was around this time one of my favorite movies Love and Basketball came out. So, peer pressure and all that.

When I came back from basketball camp, or after I failed to finagle my way out of a Sunday service, I would again try on religion—mostly in the form of praying.

Each night, I would lie in bed and start the same silent prayer. Beginning with a slightly hesitant, “Dear God?” I would methodically include every single member of my family. All of them. I couldn’t leave anyone out—even the extended family that I had never met, but could name. I drew the line at the extended family of my extended family. This was my prayer baseline. Then I would add anyone I knew who was having a hard time and thought needed my personal prayers.

Prayer itself wasn’t the problem. It was the fact that I couldn’t leave anyone out. Once I started praying for them, I had to include them every night.

In the same way, my bed as a child had a place half my size carved out for me to sleep. Every single one of my stuffed animals occupied the rest of the bed. I couldn’t leave any of them out. How do you tell a forlorn teddy bear that they didn’t make the cut to sleep on your bed? Exactly. I never figured out the answer to that one.

My experience of prayer became one of guilt. When I stopped praying for the last time, my silent recitation lasted well over an hour. It made me anxious. During the day, I worried that I might hear about yet another person who needed help, and I would feel personally responsible for praying for them. And if I didn’t, it meant that I had let them down.

That’s a lot of anxiety and guilt for young shoulders to bear.

Fifteen years later, I was doing the same thing with Facebook birthday messages. I started feeling anxious about remembering each person’s birthday. It didn’t matter if I’d never met the friend in person, or that I hadn’t spoken to that childhood friend in 20 years—it was their birthday! 

I can’t juggle my own calendar, let alone the birthdays of 900 virtual friends. Who can? This anxiety was directly related to guilt. And guilt shouldn’t determine who gets birthday wishes.

I know I’m not alone. Instead of feeling personally responsible for the birthday happiness of everyone on our Facebook accounts, or praying for everyone we’ve ever met, let’s try to approach connections to our loved ones mindfully.

We could all use a little time to slow down and create meaningful relationships. This includes the loved ones we spend our time with, as well as our digital interactions.

When I hear of a friend or loved one, or even a stranger I’ve read about in the news who may need a bit of hope, I take a moment and practice a condensed version of the Buddhist meditation practice tonglen.

I first close my eyes and imagine the person, or group of people, or situation. Then I inhale and draw in a small taste of their difficulty or struggles, and then I exhale and send them gratitude and compassion. Simple. It comes with the added benefit of forcing us to slow down and empathize with those in our lives.

We can do the same thing with our Facebook birthday wishes conundrum. Rather than trying to remember and post birthday wishes to everyone every day—let go.

Remember that we can’t be everything for everyone. If we really care about this person, interact with them outside of social media. Grab coffee. Make a phone date. Be a real person doing real things away from the screen.

For those we don’t have a close relationship with, send them a silent burst of love on their birthday. Remember, it’s the thought that counts.

And, just for good measure, I hereby absolve my Facebook friends from wishing me a happy birthday.

Consider this a benediction from your friendly neighborhood heathen.


Author: Kenni Linden    
Image: Brian Solis/Flickr
Editor: Lieselle Davidson

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