How to Celebrate a Birthday Now

By | April 15, 2020

Whether you’re turning 12, 42 or 92, inviting people to come together in a unique, specific way to celebrate your birth is actually a form of meaning-making for everyone else. Birthday celebrations, when designed well, are an opportunity to express love, to mark life and to ask people to do something adventurous. Your birthday is an excuse to elevate a day, not just for you but for everybody else. So let’s do it. Let’s have a birthday.

Hi. Welcome to “Together Apart” — you can subscribe on Apple or Spotify. How do we make gatherings meaningful when we can’t be physically together? Our host is Priya Parker, a professional conflict facilitator and the author of “The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters.” Here’s her most important advice about celebrating your birthday.

We are all experiencing this pandemic differently at different moments and with different amounts of trauma and light. There aren’t many things we can control at the moment, but there are some small actions that are still within our domain. One of them is the way we spend our time, with whom, and for what purpose.

Challenge the idea that when we are stuck at home we are not changing. We are changing from day to day. And birthdays can be a vessel to help someone remember that. If you’re wanting to be more of a reader, perhaps use your birthday to invite people to read a book together aloud for 14 hours together. (Ridiculous, I know.)

If you’re practicing being more vulnerable and open in your friendships, invite six friends to a digital dinner, maybe on Zoom, and share with each of them why you love them. If you’re trying to be open to new experiences, invite your friends to join a virtual sound bath.

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So, you’re having a birthday. Think about this birthday as a physical line you’re crossing. Imagine you could take three things with you but also you were invited to relinquish three things. What are the three qualities or beliefs or images that you would want to carry with you? What would be three things that you would be ready to let go of?

Ritual doesn’t need a group or a collective. But when we do a ritual in front of others, it can carry more weight, because you’re acknowledging that it’s happening. Witnesses matter. And these participants are part of making that crossing happen through that witnessing — and into the future, helping make the change permanent.

Think through what people need to do to prepare or bring. Should people be prompt? Does the door close at a certain moment? Or can they come and go at different times. Communicate in advance to your guests so they know what to expect.

It’s never been easier to have different phases to an event, without it getting awkward or people bumping into each other between events. Particularly for milestone birthdays, create a few layers to your gathering. Maybe make an intimate phase for an inner circle and perhaps another one that invites the larger community.

If it’s a 50th birthday party, invite a larger group of friends and family to join a virtual cocktail hour at 5 p.m., and then invite a smaller group to dine together online and share stories and toasts at 7 p.m.

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One of the powers of gathering is that it gives people meaningful roles to play in their communities. If you’re hosting people on Zoom or a phone call or a group chat, welcome people as they enter.

Creatively use the mute button (which can also mean to allow for some joyful chaos!). Explain to people how the toasts will go, or where to put their camera while reading their chapter aloud, or how long they have to find all the objects in the scavenger hunt before returning to their screen.

Recruit early evangelists by texting two or three friends who may be at the center of this new circle ahead of time. Explain the idea and get them on board. Then you can send out the formal invitation to the larger group so that these early evangelists respond enthusiastically to the email when it comes in. That sends a powerful signal to the rest of the guests.

Future episodes of “Together Apart” with Priya Parker will address how to create meaningful human gatherings in an age of isolation, all along the way from baby showers to funerals. You can listen right here or subscribe on Apple or Spotify.