Creativity in the Later Years
Facing mortality helps stoke our creative energy in life's overtime period, says the founding editor of Psychology Today.
BY: T. George Harris
Mankind has such a hunger for immortality that it took the rich wisdom of an Ernest Becker to grasp the critical value of death consciousness. He completed his soul-melting work, "The Denial of Death," in 1973, just before an aggressive cancer warned him he would never write again. Theologian Sam Keen read "Denial" page proofs for less than an hour before he told me bluntly that Psychology Today just had to fly him to Seattle to do a deathbed conversation with Becker about death. Becker, losing energy fast, urged him to hurry.
"This is the test of everything I've written about death," Becker said as Sam walked in. No time for greetings, only those last few hours for two courageous men to brood on life's final test of meaning.
"I've got a chance to show how one dies, the attitude one takes. Whether one does it in a dignified, manly way; what kind of thoughts one surrounds it with; how one accepts his death," Becker said into Sam's tape machine.
"This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression--and with it all yet to die." He went on to talk about our desperate effort to keep the terror unconscious, even to build "the vital lie of character."
Art, science, the humanities, all the proud artifacts of civilization, are created out of mankind's reach for meaning beyond the limits of life, Becker argued, while he used his last creative surge in gallant search for life's transcending values. By the time he and Sam toasted their good-byes with a paper cup of sherry, they had built a vision of the rich, poetic tribute death pays to life and the courage it takes to go gracefully into that night.
With his Welsh anger, Dylan Thomas slugged at death like a tough guy in a bar: "Rage, rage against the night, against the dying of the light." But if millions near my age are hiding from death as we get closer to it, and emotionally frozen by fear, then a little salty reality can bring back our belly laughs and nonchalance. What the hell, we'll show Gene Cohen a thing or two about creativity in life's second half, or how to play flat out in overtime. That mile I swam today left my body tingling with delight in my mortality and in the prospect oftalking it out
with whoever doesn't try to pretend to be a Greek god.