Death has never been a popular subject, notably not among old wrinklies like me (76), but now comes Dr. Gene Cohen with a major new book that celebrates "The Creative Age--Awakening the Human Potential in the Second Half of Life
." The trigger for that creative awakening, reports this NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) research psychiatrist, is confronting the reality of death just over the hill.
Dr. Cohen explains this trigger in Chapter 3, on "Transition and Transformation" of our inner landscape after midlife crisis--when fear of death begins to build up. "[W]e regain a sense of emotional balance that allows us to meet fear with the right flow of courage and inspiration to take on change and the process of engaging in exploration, innovation and creativity...it offers exciting opportunities for creative growth and new forms of expression."
Men and women typically achieve this nonchalance, Dr. Cohen reports, only by a "dramatic, though often overlooked, change in the way we think about death." Shifting from the abstract to the personal, death changes "from something that happens to something that will happen."
|Shifting from the abstract to the personal, death changes "from something that happens to something that will happen."|
These provocations clicked with me because of my heart attack last June, five days in ICU (intensive care unit), and doctor rumblings about my narrow survival. Such talk left me more vulnerable than I'd felt since Omaha Beach or the Battle of the Bulge. And with the fear came that lovely adrenalin rush, the junkie side of going out on a front-line patrol you may not come back from. Cohen's book argues that if we don't dodge the truth too much--a little death denial helps--the late years can be a bonus. In innovation and creativity, the overtime period can be our best game.
While my younger friends may not appreciate such thoughts, I was fascinated enough to call Dr. Cohen at Washington's George Washington University, where he heads the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities. Having founded the NIMH Center on Aging, he's one of the leading researchers on the upside of gerontology, deeply enraged at the tendency to see life as a downhill slide from 55 on.
Swapping notes, I became even more impressed with the quality of his thought. He knew the "Successful Aging" research led by the MacArthur Foundation, plus a body of work on midlife success correlates led by Gilbert Brim, one of the most original research psychologists of our age. Such work shows that today's elders are not only the healthiest, highest-educated cohort of wrinklies ever seen but people who fit the motivational pattern of entrepreneurs and innovators: people who've made their mark and gained economic independence, enough to be motivated now by intrinsic interest and fun in what we do. All we need is Cohen's trigger to make it pay off.