The Birthday Compromise
For reasons I do not entirely remember, I used to get worked up about my birthday. I guess it might have been because I grew up feeling very lonely and invisible and I felt like your birthday was the one day out of the year when the world was obligated, by cultural tradition, to pay attention to you and pretend that you’re a big deal.
And because I got worked up about my birthday, and fretted and dreaded about it for days in advance, my birthday was inevitably a crushing disappointment. I used to “joke” and by “joke” I mean, “bitterly acknowledge an ugly truth in quasi-humorous form”, that whenever I threw a party, it was an accidental “Boy, is Nathan unpopular!” theme party.
So somewhere down the road I made a pact with my brain that I’ve more or less stuck with. I would try to train my brain into thinking that my birthday was just another day so I would be less crushingly disappointed when the day went unrecognized and uncelebrated.
I was still disappointed, of course. It’s hard to exist in this universe and be a sensitive person and not be perpetually disappointed. But by focusing on working I had less time to obsess about how I didn’t have many friends, and the friends that I did have sure seemed to dislike me. By removing an unrealistic expectation that had only brought me heartache and supercharged my self-loathing, I made birthdays, and the days leading up to them, more bearable and less soul-crushing.
In the years that followed I tried to apply that philosophy to other aspects of my life as well. Because to be a writer is to live in a place of perpetual hope and, consequently, perpetual disappointment as well.
Sometimes that disappointment takes a form as mild as an article not doing as well as hoped. Other times it can be something as painful and intense and impactful as a professional and personal relationship ended acrimoniously and permanently. The commonality is that I had enormous, intense expectations for something and invested myself in it deeply so when it went south I felt an intensely emotional and personal sense of disappointment and sometimes disillusionment as well.
I try to condition my brain not to let itself fall into the trick of hope and expectations, to not put undue pressure on something by investing it with the full ferocious force of my dreams and ambitions on one side, and my fears and insecurities on the other. But that can be difficult, if not impossible.
It is doable, at least in some isolated instances. For example, one of the reasons I enjoy doing my podcast so much is because I do not burden it with expectations. I do it because I enjoy doing it, it’s a tremendously satisfying ongoing challenge, I enjoy the collaborative aspect and I think it’s good and getting better, not because of the downloads and Patreon money.
The Patreon money is nice, and it would be neat if Nathan Rabin’s Happy Cast’s audience grew. It’d also be nice if the podcast was a big engine to drive traffic for the website and vice versa, but those are all secondary concerns. What’s important is making it good, not necessarily popular, so I’ve uncharacteristically managed to not to obsess about Patreon or page-views. I don't even now how many downloads the typical episode gets. Probably a couple million per, I reckon, and I would be devastated to discover otherwise.
Here’s the thing: we’re always going to desperately crave things that we can probably never have. We’re always going to care about the things that are important to us, to the point where it will break our hearts if things don’t work out. That’s part of being human. What I’m forever working on, with intermittent success, is having as few expectations as possible as a way of managing the pain and disillusionment that ensues when those expectations are inevitably dashed. Besides, we should invest the precious resource that is our hope and energy and belief in things that matter, and that deserve it, not in something as stupid and trivial as the anniversaries of the arbitrary-ass day we were born.
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