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A meditation on milestones

Old milestone near Otley, Flickr image by JohnSebI've got death on my mind today. And Edith Piaf playing on an old scratchy record. It seems laughable to have just turned 27 and to be thinking about death. But there you have it.

Milestones and measurements. Like the millimeter markers on a ruler they tell us where we got to. The points we made it past, and the ones from which we stopped short. Do we focus on milestones because they console? What, if anything, does console in those last shadows of life?

I just finished reading Helen Garner's The Spare Room. The touching, raw moments of one woman's procession to death gave rise to a well of memories. Some of this remembering was personal, other memories were appropriated to feel like my own. After all, don't we try to steal what morsels of wisdom we can, from wherever and from whomever, to make up a picture of what we don't understand?

In our moments of reflective candour, we can probably admit to ourselves that the urge to 'do something' — or, to have done something — is the source of some anxiety. Or, at least, a bit of needless comparison. The subjectivity of what it means to 'do something' is obvious, and I don't intend to try to argue for any one of the 'somethings' here.

Admitting it to someone else? Another matter entirely. Even if they're long-held friends, who have shared the same milestones as the years blow in and out.

There are the milestones that seem to figure more highly when the time comes to measure up. The degree, the job, the house, the marriage. But the millimetere milestones are no less real. The first time you're really let down, or fully comprehend the mortality of the people you hold close. These milestones don't usually rate a mention in the grand story of a life. But they are the chinks in a life well-lived.

We keep a loose adherence to milestones because we need to keep track. Just as we need to keep time. Otherwise we can't decipher one day from the next. 'Progress' might be a construct but it's a real one. Did the French philosophes ever conceive that their noble little idea would be so fundamental in 2010? They probably did, such was their faith in their absolute correctness. Along with liberty, fraternity and equality, revolutionary thinkers like Rousseau were convinced that humanity necessarily improves with the passage of time. Imbued with reason and rationality, each generation inches towards a higher existence.

Milestones are the arbitrary roadhouses on our respective roads. One person's marriage is another person's train wreck. One woman's family is another woman's career, because we still haven't displaced the reality that, in the ways that matter, women still have to choose. Does it matter if we don't reach our milestones? Which, if any, will give us solace when the end comes?

Sociologist Francesca Collins considers that in modern Western societies milestones, and journeying more generally, are a secularised version of 'God's will'. She argues that journeys allow us to 'make sense of the utterly unfathomable without resorting to God or some sort of compensation in the afterlife'. Perhaps milestones are a substitute for a higher redemptive force. Perhaps they're not. Either way, they are omnipresent as we muddle through the days.

I suspect, however, that the beauty of the quiet moments between people is greater than most milestones. It is worth more than the anxiety over whether we have lived a full life. Whether it's a softly spoken confession to a friend, or the instant you meet someone's eyes in mutual acknowledgment of a moment just passed, or the lightest touch of a person's hand on yours when you each know the precise meaning of that connection. These are the things that stay with you.

Maybe, more than marriage or property or children or career, these are the true milestones.

Emily MillaneEmily Millane is a lawyer and writer with an interest in politics and human relations. She completed her honours in comparative history at The University of Melbourne in 2007 and was admitted to practice as a lawyer in 2009.

Topic tags: Emily Millane, milestones, Helen Garner, The Spare Room



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