Several years ago, seven or eight months after I had set up a Facebook account, my birthday arrived, and I was inundated by birthday wishes. At that point, I never went on Facebook (and still rarely do) unless someone messaged me. I spent half my birthday that year responding to these messages, thanking people, one by one.
When I complained to my son (who may have encouraged me to get on Facebook, but who in any case is my personal cyber consultant and advisor), Andrew explained that it would not have been rude if I hadn’t responded. Nobody was expecting a reply. Or, he suggested, that next time, I might write a single response, thanking everyone for their wishes.
I was not impressed. What was the point of receiving a birthday wish if it did not lead to further interaction? If I did not check in with each person or if I did not take the opportunity to reconnect with someone with whom I had fallen out of touch? On the birthdays that followed, I barely took note of my well-wishers and certainly did not invest any time in responding to them. The experience gave me permission to confirm my suspicions about the superficiality of social media. Not only were “friends” not really friends, but “birthday wishes” were not really birthday wishes.
My birthday this year, however, was different. I don’t know why, but I felt buoyed by the flood of wishes that began a day or two before my actual birthday. Yes, there were wishes from people whose names and photos I did not recognize, but I took them in nevertheless, assuming they were the equivalents of smiles or hellos from people passing on the street. But there were also messages from cousins who do not live nearby, whom I rarely see, and who I know love me. There were wishes from former students in Sweden, in Kansas, in Massachusetts—who, I imagined, went on Facebook, noticed my birthday, thought of me fondly, and took ten seconds to type and send a message wishing me well. There were wishes from colleagues I barely know, whom I have met over the years at conferences, whose work I have read and who have presumably read mine—people of whom I am aware and admire and who, I assumed, felt similarly about me.
The overall effect was that I felt held in a worldwide web of love and good wishes.
When a colleague or the person at the next elliptical machine at the gym or a co-worker smiles and says, “Good morning,” I can question the person’s sincerity, or I can open my heart and take it in. When I say, “Have a wonderful day” to the man working the cash register at CVS, I mean it, even though I know nothing about him.
I have come to see that joining the chorus of well-wishers and developing the ability to accept and internalize their wishes is a practice of faith. I believe that there are many, many people who think kindly of me and who wish me well—some of whom I have met and know well and some of whom I have never heard of, some of whom are alive and others of whom are not. As I have a practice of sending wishes of loving-kindness to parents everywhere, to people suffering from mood disorders, to children who have been orphaned by violence, to whole classes of people, so do I have a practice of receiving the healing wishes of people near and far. They are, I believe, some of the vessels through which divine blessings reach us.
There is a Jewish teaching in the Hasidic tradition that when a person feels so distant and alienated from any relationship with God, God asks only for him or her to move a finger every so slightly as an indication of the desire to restore the relationship. The tiniest tremor is sufficient to open to the endless overflowing love in which we are bathed if we just open our hearts.
I’m inclined to believe that a single stroke on the keyboard sending birthday wishes is itself a finger’s movement with the potential to unlock…who knows what?
Rabbi Jacob Staub is Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Spirituality at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, PA, where he directs the program in Jewish Spiritual Direction.
This content was originally published on the website of The First Day, at http://firstdaypress.org/do-facebook-birthday-wishes-really-matter.