Nong Khai, Thailand — Notes from the Field includes reports from young people volunteering in ministries of Catholic sisters. A partnership with Catholic Volunteer Network, the project began in the summer of 2015. This is our fifth round of bloggers: Katie Delaney is a Good Shepherd Volunteer with the Fundación Madre Josefa (Mother Joseph Foundation) in Santiago, Chile, and Lauren Magee is a Good Shepherd Volunteer at Hands of Hope, an income-generating project that provides dignified employment for villagers living with HIV/AIDS in Nong Khai, Thailand.
Birthdays are universal, but the degree to which they're celebrated varies by culture, religion, family and individual. When I was younger, birthdays had a lot more emphasis than they do now. I just turned 24, and I'm realizing that I've passed many of the milestones that are attributed to age. There are no more new and exciting privileges to be gained and I'm just simply getting older.
I'm not trying to fight the inevitable, but as my birthday approached, all I wished was for the day to disappear. It's not the acknowledgment of my age that was deterring me, but rather the way birthdays have come to be celebrated.
Young adults are consumed by social media and your online image becomes an essential part of your perceived success. The number of birthday messages from people you haven't spoken to in years becomes a reflection of your self-worth and those close to you chastise themselves if they forget to post a message. Birthdays have become a competition and a source of stress, something that I would never want to induce.
Many holidays have become contrived by our consumer-driven society and there are many parallels to the distorted traditions of Christmas and that of birthdays. For some, Christmas has lost its religious connotation and is a time for fantastical stories, winter decorations and copious gifts. For others, this only makes them hold onto the true meaning of Christmas even harder, because distractions are plentiful and upholding personal or religious traditions becomes even more special.
Birthdays may lack the same religious importance as Christmas, but they still maintain a spiritual significance, especially to the community I live in. Science tells us that with a proper medication regiment, the life expectancy of those with HIV is similar to those without the virus. To this day, however, many people think that a diagnosis of HIV/AIDS is a death sentence and that their days are numbered. The patients and workers at Hands of Hope often share that they thought they would never make it to this point and that every added year is a celebration of life.
Birthdays are a representation of their strength, ability to overcome challenges, and a reminder that they are capable of far more than they think. The body can be limiting, but it can also surprise you with its resilience. In Thailand, people often report their age as a year ahead of our Western age calculation, because they consider the year ahead to be reflected in your age. For example, I just turned 24 years old, but I am living my 25th year and therefore my Thai age is 25.
Any day that holds significance in Western culture always elicits a response from the Good Shepherd Sisters and my Thai community. I get dinner offers, special treats, and constant verbal check-ins asking how I am doing and if I'm missing home. I feel so lucky to be surrounded by people who care so much about my well-being, but I haven't found these days to be particularly triggering to my homesickness. Holidays just don't feel the same here, not necessarily worse or better, and if I didn't own a calendar, I wouldn't even have remembered most of them.
Instead, I've embraced Buddhist holidays that typically occur every month on the night of a full moon. Whether you are Buddhist or Catholic, Thai or American, you yearn to celebrate your special days with your special people. For many of us in the Garden community, we can't physically be with our friends and family, so we take turns filling in the gaps.
There have been many birthdays since I arrived in August, so I already knew my day was destined to include sweets, gifts and an overflowing amount of affection. In the States, I often seek out the spotlight, but in Nong Khai, my only desire is to blend in. Even though I requested "low-key," I knew that nobody would listen and I was forced to accept being fawned over for the majority of the day.
In an attempt to keep the day normal, I worked my usual overnight shift where I distribute medication, serve as a resource to the patients, and sleep in the Life Center in case any emergencies arise in the night. During my shift, I spoke with two of the patients about my annoyance with birthdays. I explained that I wanted to shy away from all the attention and just ignore the day altogether.
Both of the patients looked at me with horrified expressions and began a 30-minute lecture on the importance of birthdays. They believe that birthdays are an opportunity to take inventory on your life and re-evaluate goals for the future. They are a time to look back on your year with gratitude and make wishes for what's ahead. If I continued to let these years pass by, without reflection, then I would lose this true measure of time and progress.
I'm not so concerned with the aging of my body and am much more curious about the aging of the soul. However, while I still believe the body and soul to be separate entities, I can't ignore that they are dependent on one another and that the fusion of the two creates life. I have a new appreciation for birthdays, as I was minimizing the day to being a popularity contest among my peers.
One of the reasons I enjoy speaking with the patients is because they question my beliefs and dare me to think differently. It's in these moments that I'm sure my soul is aging. The soul is not so easily measured, but I am striving to gain knowledge, to become wiser, and to live my life with purpose. Age may be just a number, but growth is everything.
[Lauren Magee is a Good Shepherd Volunteer at Hands of Hope, an income-generating project that provides dignified employment for villagers living with HIV/AIDS in Nong Khai, Thailand.]