Creativity at Any Age
Author : Gene D. Cohen - Subject : Life
When poet Stanley Kunitz won a National Book Award in 1995, at age 90, for his book of poems Passing Through, another noted poet, Mark Strand, exclaimed: "One of America's great poets. Most poets dry up at 50. For him to be writing poems at 90 is just incredible."
The notion that most poets (and other creative people) dry up at 50 is quickly refuted by a glance at the relatively recent past. William Butler Yeats published Last Poems and Two Plays at age 73, in the year he died. Playwright George Bernard Shaw won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925 at the age of 69 and was at work on a new play when he died at 94. Poet Maya Angelou, born in 1928, is writing at the ripe—not at all dried up-age of 71. (Incidentally, Mark Strand was a vibrant and productive 61 when he made his remark about Kunitz.)
As a gerontologist and psychiatrist, I frequently hear this faulty assumption—that our talents crest and ebb in our middle years—in my work with public officials, community activists, and patients and their families. If the leading voices of our culture can be so mistaken about our creative potential as we grow older, it's no surprise that most of us underestimate it in everyday life.
Why does it matter? Because creativity, which I define as our innate capacity for growth, is empowering.
It is the energy that allows us to think a different thought, express ourselves in a novel way. It enables us to view life as an opportunity for exploration, discovery, and an expanding sense of self . . . and it knows no age.
That creativity is only for the gifted few, and that even their talents dim with age, is a myth. The truth is that creativity is not just for geniuses. The implications for society, and for each of us individually, are stunning—not only in terms of continued productivity and invention but because creativity can contribute to physical health as we age. Creative expression fosters positive feelings that prompt a positive outlook and a sense of well-being. By promoting positive emotions, creativity promotes positive immune function.
To help explain what I learned about creativity and aging during more than 30 years of working with older people, I developed what I call "the creativity equation." The equation is c = ME2. It states that creativity (c) is the result of our mass of knowledge (m) multiplied by the effects of our two dimensions of experience (e2). The first dimension reflects psychological and emotional growth over the years; the second dimension reflects accumulated knowledge of life and the wisdom resulting from it.
In recent years, research and public attention have been devoted to the unique value of the first three years of life in determining brain development and behavior; this advance in scientific understanding is long overdue. However, this focus spawned the notion that our brain potential, our "hard-wiring," is for the most part determined in this childhood phase of development. Not so. New research into the capacity for learning and creative development in the second half of life has shown that when the mind is challenged, the brain biologically responds in positive ways, regardless of age. Anyone who claims that you "can't teach an old dog new tricks" isn't up-to-date on brain research. Old dogs-and people-can learn. In fact, the more we think and do, the more we contribute to vibrant cell life in the brain.
The brain actually responds physically and chemically to environmental challenge. Brain cells involved in thinking and memory communicate with one another in two fundamental ways. One way is through branchlike extensions known as dendrites. The other way is through the release of chemical messengers between the branches. Science has shown that a stimulating environment results in individual brain cells sprouting new dendritic branches and an increased production within the brain of acetylcholine, the chemical messenger most involved in memory and thinking functions. The newest findings reveal that from an individual's early 50s through late 70s, there is actually an increase in the length and extent of the dendritic branches, which compensate for brain-cell loss that can occur over time. If you picture the chemical messengers as busy squirrels, and two adjacent brain cells as two trees, a new growth of branches makes it easier for the squirrels to leap from one tree to another.
The Four Phases of Creativity
A look at developmental growth takes us into another part of the forest. Here we're talking about changes at different points in the life cycle—changes in how we view and experience life from a combined psychological, emotional, and intellectual perspective. Just as you can't teach a child to read before he or she is developmentally ready to read, certain qualities of mind and action in adulthood unfold at their own special time.
For instance, wisdom can't be taught. It is a developmental mix of age, knowledge, and practical life experience, and the brain function that allows us to integrate those pieces to achieve insight, which we can then apply to a variety of life circumstances. That is why it is typically easier for an older adult to define problems and envision multiple strategies to deal with them. In adulthood we can take advantage of this developmental impetus to energize our creativity and jump-start our efforts to explore new ideas or make changes.
Four developmental phases—reevaluation, liberation, summing-up, and encore—shape the way our creative energy grows and the way we express it in our later years. Like so much of the human condition, the timing and duration of these phases are fluid. While they typically unfold in sequence, there can be significant variation. They can overlap, and precise ages at which they occur vary. We all have the potential to experience each phase, but not every phase may be significantly expressed. For example, little reevaluation activity and little liberation activation may occur, but you might have strong summing-up action. Each phase is defined by a combination of our chronological age, our history, and our circumstances.
1. Reevaluation Phase
In this phase, from our 50s on, our creative expression is intensified by a sense of crisis or quest. Although "midlife crisis" is the term we so often hear, most adults are engaged in a search for ways to make their life and work more gratifying. The reevaluation phase combines the capacity for insightful reflection with a powerful desire to create meaning in life.
Alex Haley illustrated this desire in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Roots, published when he was 55. Haley spent 12 years traveling to Africa, tracking his maternal family back to Kunta Kinte, a Mandingo youth who was kidnapped into slavery from a small village in Gambia, West Africa. Haley's quest and Roots catalyzed a latent national interest in family history.
2. Liberation Phase
In this phase, typically from a person's 60s to his or her 70s, creative endeavors are charged with the added energy of a new degree of personal freedom that comes psychologically from within us and situationally from retirement or from a change from full-time to part-time work. People tend to feel comfortable about themselves by this stage, knowing that if they make a mistake it won't undo the image others have of them and, more important, won't undo their image of themselves. Creative expression in this phase often includes translating a feeling of "if not now, when?" into action. This provides a new context for experimentation, which is liberating and adds to the richness of life.
As a young woman, Eleanor Roosevelt was extremely shy, but adapted to a public life after her marriage to FDR. However, in her 60s she emerged in a new way as an international figure, in a transition that reflected the inner push of the liberation phase and the outer pull experienced by so many women of her age who lose a spouse and, in an effort to cope, draw upon unsuspected creative potential. Mrs. Roosevelt was 61 when President Truman appointed her to represent the U.S. as a delegate to the United Nations. She served until she was 68, and during this period was chairman of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, where she played a major role in the drafting and adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
3. Summing-Up Phase
In this phase, from our 70s on, we feel more urgently the desire to find a larger meaning in the story of our lives through a process of looking back, summing up, and giving back. We also begin to see ourselves as "keepers of the culture," and wish to contribute whatever we have gained in wisdom and wealth. Creative expression in this phase often includes autobiography and personal storytelling, philanthropy, community activism, and volunteerism.
Martha Graham reigned for more than half a century as the indisputable high priestess of modern dance. Her dance language was intended to express universal human emotions and experiences: Forceful, angular movements and creative muscular tension distinguished her work. About this she once said: "Life today is nervous, sharp, and zigzag. That is what I aim for in my dances."
She danced until she was 75, but continued after retirement to influence dance through her choreography, which reflected a crystallization of her dramatic art. Her works at this stage borrowed from Greek legend and biblical themes, and included Alcestis and Acrobats of God when she was 66, Phaedra and Legend of Judith at age 68, and Circe when she was 69. These works are still performed worldwide in the repertoires of major dance companies.
4. Encore Phase
This phase, in our 80s or older, reflects the energy of advancing age, in which creative expression is shaped by the desire to make yet further contributions on a personal or community level: to affirm life, to take care of unfinished business, and to celebrate one's place in family, community, and even in the spiritual realm.
Many of Pablo Picasso's later works reflect a revisiting, and celebration, of the themes of his life and work as a younger artist. In 1968, at age 86, Picasso produced a remarkable series of 347 etchings. Titled Suite 347, they focus on circuses, bullfights, Spanish literature, and especially, erotic scenes—all areas of emphasis in his earlier work. The erotic art in the series culminates with a group of images of lovemaking, infused with sexual passion and a wild sense of humor.
Creativity Is Not Just for Artists
Harvard professor Howard Gardner, a noted expert on human development, describes two types of creativity: Creativity with a "big C" and creativity with a "little c." When Einstein developed the theory of relativity he was practicing Creativity with a "big C" and it changed an entire field of thought. On the other hand, creativity with a "little c" emerges from the milieu of everyday life.
"Every person has certain areas in which he or she has a special interest," said Gardner. "It could be something they do at work—the way they write memos or their craftsmanship at a factory—or the way they teach a lesson. After working for a while they can get to be pretty good—as good as anybody whom they know in their immediate world."
I came to know Mary Lester at 72, when she had been a widow for four years. She had had a wonderful marriage and an interesting career as a nurse, first in the military where her husband was a career noncommissioned officer, and then in a rural town where they moved after retiring together from the army. While in the military she and her husband were stationed in six foreign countries and traveled all over the world on leave. They visited the places where their grandparents were born, and Mary recorded those experiences in her diary. She had, as well, many family photographs going back two generations. Though Mary had no children of her own, she had several nieces and nephews whom she loved dearly. With the help of one niece, Mary worked for two years to combine her diary and photos into a book called, simply, Mary's Story. It was her legacy to the next generations of her family.
Jason Riley had a long and successful career as a corporate attorney. As he approached his 85th birthday, he had the longing to take on one more case. "I also felt a little disappointed in myself," he says. "I'd never done a thing for my own community."
Then he learned that the local community center was about to lose its home because the owners intended to convert the building to commercial use. Jason volunteered his services to argue the case in court as a zoning violation, and won. Today the building belongs to the community, and Jason has a new sense of personal closure.
In the early 1930s, William Edmonson, an African-American in his early 60s, was working as a janitor at the Women's Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee. The hospital closed and Edmonson lost his job. During this time of crisis, he suddenly had the inspiration to carve wood, and by his mid-60s was blossoming as a sculptor. A photographer sent a portfolio of photos of Edmonson's sculptures to New York's Museum of Modern Art and at age 67, in 1937, Edmonson became the first black artist to have a solo exhibition there.
And so it is that many of us are joining the growing ranks who serve as producers and inventors as well as keepers of our culture.
One of my favorite stories is about a man who accomplished a great feat in his late age through combining fortitude of body with creativity of mind. Sir Francis Chichester sailed around the world alone at 65. Though he was an experienced yachtsman, this is not a feat that one might expect from a man who appeared so slight, wearing thick glasses. Chichester's voyage in his 54-foot boat, The Gipsy Moth, began in August 1966. He celebrated his 65th birthday at sea in September. In the process, he established seven world records, including the fastest voyage circling the earth by any small vessel.
One of his friends wrote of the event: "Chichester could not see himself as the crowd of cheering Londoners saw him. . . . . He was the nation's hero, but to me he seemed to epitomize not scarlet or lace, but that incredible endurance the people of England have shown when it was needed of them, the endurance of the men who sailed with Drake, Anson, Cook, and Nelson, for England. And that, I think, is what everybody felt. And that is why we cheered."
After Chichester's return, the Queen of England knighted him with the very sword Queen Elizabeth I gave to Sir Francis Drake nearly four centuries earlier. But what always strikes me as most important about the story of Chichester and his accomplishments isn't so much that he sailed around the world alone at the age of 65 but the creative attitude he employed to complete his goal. This is an entry from the log he kept during the voyage:
"People keep at me about my age. I suppose they think I can beat age. I am not that foolish. Nobody, I am sure, can be more aware than I am that my time is limited. I don't think I can escape aging, but why beef about it? Our only purpose in life, if we are able to say such a thing, is to put up the best performance we can-in anything, and only in so doing lies satisfaction in living."
Gene D. Cohen, the author of The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life (Avon Books, 2000), is a world-renowned gerontologist, psychiatrist, and the first director of the Center on Aging, Health, & Humanities at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
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