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.
There's a bumper crop of us. An average American life is 30 years longer today, nearly half again what it was at the beginning of the 20th century. Just within my lifetime, we've been given or earned about a 14-year bonus in healthy, active years to use for our own purposes. We really are playing in overtime. A 79-year-old today can be about as productive and creative as a 65-year-old when Social Security got going.
|"This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name...deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression--and with it all yet to die."--Ernest Becker
But the Cohen trigger has been hidden. Death has faded, become a ghost--even something of an embarrassment. Gone is the family funeral with the body in the living room. Hospitals and undertakers sanitize and hide the whole process. Death, not a polite topic, has replaced pornography as the unmentionable. Playboy's well-researched volume, "The Century of Sex," argues that all forms of sex have come out of the closet. But a few years ago, when I put an open grave on the cover of Psychology Today (with each subscriber's address sticker placed as a tombstone), we were considered a bit uncouth.
The loss of our sense of mortality can make us as silly and superficial as the Olympic gods and goddesses of classical Greece. Often mean, these lascivious divines never died or really risked themselves for love or belief. Venus and other goddesses even re-virginalized themselves in a baptismal bath each year. I never understood why most of the Greek gods were such vapid bores until I realized how their immortality reduces them to cardboard archetypes of deeper human tragedies.
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 of talking it out
with whoever doesn't try to pretend to be a Greek god.