The Creative Age. – Review

The Creative Age. – Review – book review

T. George Harris

THE CREATIVE AGE (Avon, 2000) Gene D. Cohen, M.D., Ph.D.

Not many books about old age and fear of death tend to boost my mood, but Gene Cohen’s The Creative Age has me singing in the shower and chuckling even at Internet jokes. Being a white-headed wrinklie, as Australians call us old folks, I now feel the laughs bubbling up the way they have most of my 76 years. Why? Well, Cohen brightened my life–by putting me back in touch with my fear of death.

Millions of us are living 30 years longer than we did a hundred years ago, and the data suggest that just in my lifetime we’ve been given a 14-year bonus in productive activity. Our species is experimenting with lifespan. Here we are playing in overtime, with damn few dentures, more health and energy than any cohort our age ever had. But our bodies wear down and cramp up, aggravating reminders that the whistle will soon blow to end the game. We tense up with anxiety and nocturnal panic, wake from nightmares at 2:29a.m., roused by fear-moved bowels, fall into depression, lose concentration and turn edgy each time memory hides a name or a fact just when we have to have it.

So we have to turn tombstone terrors into creative energy, urges Cohen. We start to get liberated, if ever, only by a “dramatic, though often overlooked, change in the way we think about death.” Shifting from the abstract to the concrete, death changes “from something that happens to something that will happen.” Only when we look death in the eye–whatever words work for you–and come to terms with our mortality do we discover a creative new freedom, Cohen reports. As the founding director of the National Institute of Mental Health’s Institute for Aging, he’s looked into cases enough to dig out the subtle stuff buried under death denials. That’s why the book pays off solidly on the promise of its subtitle: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life.

My heart attack last June didn’t teach me much. No life review, no out-of-body trip. Five days in intensive care, plus months of healthy-heart coaching, took me back into the health movement I’d helped found with American Health magazine back in 1982. Raised on Kentucky ham and fried chicken, I’ve become a 76-year-old body puritan reduced to tofu and swimming a mile a day, slowly, behind the white-haired ladies. Survival became the only absolute. The ruthless concentration it takes to write anything, or do most things, became a form of original sin, a dirty ego. So what was life good for?

Cohen’s third chapter, “Transition and Transformation,” took me into flashback memories of World War II when I was a forward observer from Omaha Beach to Bastogne, and went on to witness the liberation of Ohrdruf, a concentration camp. I learned to “go out dead” when I knew, without quibble, that the odds on coming back were thinner than I was. By letting go, not hanging on to life, I fell into relaxation like a meditation response. That consciousness helped cut away the underbrush of life, set up a slouching nonchalance that eased me through magazine startups, high-risk projects and even race riots. But late in life, especially after a heart event, I lost my comfortable sense of mortality.

Data argue that we elders have easier access to our unconscious, to productive dreams, than most busy grown-ups. In Denial of Death, the classic by Ernst Becker, the author argued that most art, and indeed civilization itself, comes from our struggle to transcend our mortal limits. What I know is I’d lost my old humor partner, death, but with Cohen’s help we’re hanging out together again and we know that a workable idea or a good joke is more important than extended tofu.

T. George Harris is the former editor of Psychology Today, American Health, Harvard Business Review and Spirituality & Health.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group