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What is human life for, anyway?

By Don Aitkin - posted Wednesday, 4 September 2019

My apologies to those who wondered what had happened to their comments. I was getting weaker and weaker, and was suddenly packed off to hospital for a long rest, which has done me a lot of good. There may need to be a return, but so far I am doing well. Apart from sleeping, I read, and one of the books I read, indeed, am re-reading for the third time, I think, was The Seasons of a Man's Life, written by Daniel Levinson and others, and published in 1978. My copy's pages have turned yellow with time, but the content remains everlastingly interesting.

A summary: all men go through the same stages of life, and these stages are well marked both in time and what happens in them. Some are obvious. Men need to leave the comfortable (or not so comfortable) surroundings of their family and strike out as independent adults. They need to find an occupation, to become a respected member of their 'tribe', to find a life's partner, to found a family, and so on. These needs occur at very much the same time for all (American) men, whatever their social class, their parentage, their religion, their ethnicity. They make a decent or not so decent attempt at it all. At about thirty years comes a transition: the occupation is no longer so satisfying, or perhaps the marriage. Perhaps they move to another city altogether and start a new life. At forty they have reached the pinnacle of their occupational life. At fifty they start to wonder what the end of life will be about.

I was a youngish man when I first read the book, and it made great sense. It still does to me, for it fits my life history exactly. And it has led me to ask the question that is the title of this essay. What is life for, or about? It is a question that comes easily enough when you are 82. Earlier on, and especially when you are young, you are just living your life, looking forward to the next whatever. Levinson's structures seem to make perfect sense. But at the end, what was it all for? I wrote a book with that title about our country, and it now seems sensible to write at least an essay about the meaning of a man's life. (I should add that Levinson wrote another book about the seasons of a woman's life, which I have not read, and indeed was unaware of until I started researching this essay.)


Since I have no religion, I cannot find the answer in God's plan or in any of the other possibilities raised by other religions. And the answer really has to apply to me. What has my life been for, or about? My tentative answer goes like this. My birth itself was an accident: there were millions of other possible DAs, or at least products of the union of my parents. I was the lucky sperm: I won the life lottery. Life ends with death, so that was in my prize bag as well. At some time my life would come to an end. I have been saved from drownings, from crashes, poisonings and the like. I've had a close go with ill-health at a couple of moments. But I'm still here, and probably close to the end.

Levinson says that our life is a search to find out what we are and what we are capable of. As a young man we want to be part of the adult tribe, to be respected as a contributor, to be looked up to. I think there's a lot in that. But it doesn't apply equally to everyone. We want to do our own thing, but equally we live in a community, and there are compromises to be made with the community. So part of our life is finding out how to tweak the twin needs to be ourselves but to be part of the society we live in - what Levinson calls 'the tribe'. That is not at all easy.

When we've found what we are good at, what then? For people like me, academics, researchers, scientists, there is a greasy pole. You work harder, publish more, have newer and cleverer ideas. Eventually you get to some senior position. It may not be as senior as the one you lusted after, but it is the pinnacle of your professional career. Thereafter you have a new job, or new jobs. When I returned to the ANU, where I had won my PhD, but now as the professor and head of the department, I wondered what my next big project would be. After all, I was a 'big project' man. Nothing came to me. I was talking about this to an old and good friend. 'I think you've got it the wrong way round,' he said. 'Your job now is to help your juniors with their big projects. They'll need your help. What you've done so far has got you to this point. Now you have a new task.'

It didn't sound very romantic or exciting to me, but of course he was right. In my field you mostly have your bright ideas when you are young. Then you work on them and if you are lucky something more or less important comes from them. Then you've done your bit. I understand that this is even more true of mathematicians and physicists. Levinson says that it's the same for everyone. Executives peak out at about 40; so do skilled workers; so do novelists. They've done their best work by then. Now they wonder what to do now. Some of them simply change what they have been doing. I certainly did: from a productive researcher in a few years I had become an administrator and policy wonk. I didn't even seek such a change: it simply came to me, and the more jobs of this kind I was asked to do the more new jobs of this kind there were. Before long I hardly knew what was happening in my old academic field.

But what was it all for? My view is that I wanted both to make something of myself and to improve my society. I think nearly everybody wants to do this. Our society is a great deal better for most people than it was when I was young, and I wanted to help improve it further. I think I did that through my work, and I think most people, looking back, looking at the houses they helped to build, the factories where they made things that people used, the farms they have greatly improved, might want to say the same.

There are two sides to us, the individualist, who wants what he wants and wants it now, and the community member who belongs to things, puts in the hours, builds community organisations and enjoys his interaction with other member of the society. We live, and our life is a tension between these two attractors.


Does it have a purpose? I think so. The human species has done extraordinary things in the last ten thousand years, and my hope is that it will go on doing so indefinitely. We are really special, but the tensions within us are always there. Let us recognise and tame the tensions.

Levinson's book is not easy going, but it is thoroughly worth reading' You'll need Amazon or another specialist in older books if you want to buy copy. Good luck, and good reading!

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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