For my 21st birthday, my family arranged a fairly significant birthday party for me. Tables and chairs were packed into my parents’ house, large trays of food were cooked, boxes of wine and drinks were bought, decorations were hung and a giant birthday cake materialised from somewhere. I was miserable about it all. In fact, I was so miserable that I insisted on spending the morning at work (even though my boss had encouraged me to take the day off) and I complained endlessly to anyone who’d listen – unsurprisingly, I received little sympathy back.
Despite being an extrovert with a huge circle of people who mean everything to me, I hate holding celebrations. Being the centre of attention makes me clam up and feel awkward and ashamed. I was always in the spotlight as a child – I won swimming races, academic awards, art competitions and performed on stage. Life was easy then and I felt unbridled joy in succeeding. But when I reached my teenage years I was bullied for standing out. All I wanted to do in those years was fit in and step into the shadows where no-one would unpick my confidence and shatter my self-worth. Having said that, I feel genuinely lucky to have lived my teenage years without the pressures of social media further eroding my deepest fragilities.
When I arrived at my parents’ house after work, I was horrified to find a whole team of helpers setting up what had been positioned as a ‘fairly small get together.’ There were table places for at least 60 people and there was a huge effort in progress. I had no choice but to get over myself and muck in alongside family members who’d flown in for the occasion. As I blew up balloons, hung decorative ivy and set tables, my anxiety began to bubble over. I was so happy to have my family around me but I was equally filled with dread about having to keep everyone entertained all evening.
As the first guests arrived, the feeling of terror soared. They brought gifts which I opened on the spot (I have very little self-control when it comes to gifts) and I started to ease up a bit. One of my most generous presents was a shiny new (film) SLR camera which I’d use to capture the world from so many perspectives later on. As group by group the party grew my anxiety actually began to subside. All of these people had taken their time to celebrate my existence. They’d given up a Saturday night, some had flown around the country, and many had made an effort to find special trinkets to make me feel extra celebrated. Person by person, they all contributed to an unforgettable memory that I often think back to today - and the memory connects me to feelings of gratitude and acceptance.
After dinner was eaten, everyone gathered around for speech time. It was a truly beautiful moment. There were many tears in the room as my uncles, aunts and parents shared the most wonderful stories. My friends shared slightly different musings which caused much laughter – and a few awkward questions, days later. By this point in the evening I was genuinely enjoying myself and had completely relaxed. I could recognise that while I don’t like being the centre of attention, I do like being celebrated – and after hearing the impact I’d had on peoples’ lives I actually felt worthy of celebration. Everyone is worthy of celebration.
A I continue thinking about gratitude, this week I've reflected on its connection to celebration. While our world is upside down in so many ways right now, there’s still a lot to be grateful for – and there’s so much to celebrate! De Witt Jones’ TedTalk Celebrate What’s Right With the World illustrates this so poignantly. Jones, a National Geographic photographer, has an inspiring way of reframing things and helping us see (very literally) that there’s always something to celebrate. He shows us that sometimes we just need to adjust our perspective slightly - like I did during my 21st birthday party. Watch it – do it now – then continue to find your own things to celebrate.