Is Cynicism a Side-Effect of Aging? – The Mark Twain Syndrome

Samuel Clemens, known famously as Mark Twain, became extremely bitter and pessimistic about the human race as he got older.  I’m 60 and I’m starting to feel I’ve caught a touch of pessimism myself, so I’m wondering if I’m developing the Mark Twain Syndrome?  And will I get more negative as the years pile up?


Is cynicism a side-effect of aging?

Now Twain had a lot of reasons to feel depressed and bitter.  His wife, and two of his three daughters, died before he did.  He made fortunes and lost them.  He ran up staggering debt.   In his old age he had to constantly tour the world giving talks so he could honorably pay off his creditors.  Plus he saw a lot of the world that he just didn’t like, and he felt he had good reasons to think humans were a nasty species.  Twain died in 1910, so he never knew the horrors of the 20th century, but the vicious satirical stories he wrote in his later years feel spot on to modern readers.

I would think anyone following the highly polarized politics of the 2012 presidential election would feel depressed about our political system.  I would think anyone studying how humans treat the environment and our fellow creatures would feel gloomy about the Earth.  I would think anyone comparing the growing greed of the rich versus the expanding misery of the poor would feel doomed over the fate of mankind.  It’s hard not to believe that homo sapiens aren’t going to use up every last resource on this planet and never feel guilty.

How can you have faith in Congress when the national debt grows and all they can talk about is tax cuts?  How can feel good about America when one party stonewalls the other for four years in hopes of winning the next election?  When did serving the party become more important than serving the country?

Our current economic calamity is due to a man-made economic catastrophe.  Billions were stolen but no one was ever put on trial.  And the rich are spending billions to get a President in office so they can go back to business as usual.

I can’t help but believe that a perfect storm of national collapse is brewing.  Is the U.S. in decline like the Roman and British empires were long ago?

Here some of the factors:

  • Growing economic chaos
  • World-wide shift to fundamental religious thinking
  • Global warming
  • Diseases becoming immune to our medicines
  • Population growth
  • Dwindling resources
  • Relentless pollution
  • Accelerating species extinctions
  • Uncontrolled debt
  • Political polarization
  • Aging population
  • Growing segment of population that’s not in labor force
  • Escalating crime and corruption around the world
  • Rising healthcare costs
  • Rising food costs

Now, do I dwell on all of that because I’m getting older?  If I was young would I feel that all of those issues were just problems to be easily solved?  I don’t know.  It’s not like I want to walk around with a sandwich sign proclaiming “The End is Near” but I feel like I’m on a fast train and the brakes just went out.  Is that feeling caused by getting older?

How do you know when things are bad or when you’re just feeling bad and think civilization is in decline?

Conversely, when I read about developments in science, technology, medicine, I feel positive and my thoughts about the future are uplifted.  Science is the one constant positive – but most people reject science.  What makes me feel good makes other people feel bad.

When I was young and read about Mark Twain I hoped I’d never become bitter and negative like he did.  Even now I try to stay positive.  But its not easy.  Oh, if I keep busy and ignore the problems I’m as happy as a two-year-old with a box of cookies.  And I tend to think that’s how most folks handles the problem–they eat more cookies.

When I was young, growing up with the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs, I assumed we’d have permanent bases on the Moon and Mars by now, and men and women would have explored the entire solar system.  In my teens, I felt before I died engineers would be drawing up plans interstellar spacecraft.  Maybe not manned ones, but at least for interstellar robotic explorers.  I think part of my disappointed about getting old is none of this has happened.

I’ve read enough history to know that the present has always been on the tipping point of chaos.  I should feel confident that we’ll continue to bumble though.  But I’ve also read enough history to know that nations rise and fall, and that all over the globe there are sites where people live who think about their country’s former glory.  We revel is the decline of communism, but who is to say capitalism will last?  Personally, I think free market capitalism will fail under overpopulation.  We have over 12 million people defined as unemployed, but we have over 87 million people not employed, or considered unemployable.  This population is over 16, not in jail or in military service that doesn’t work.  They are retired, mentally or physically can’t work, gave up trying to find work, or won’t work.  Less than half the U.S. population has jobs and they must fund the living expenses for the entire population.  Capitalism isn’t creating enough jobs.  It’s worse in other countries.

And the people who are working and paying taxes want to pay less.  This is at a time when our economy depends on socialism.  The reality is the U.S. has been a socialistic country since the 1930s.  To reject socialism now means condemning tens of millions of poverty.  The growing nostalgia for fundamental religious beliefs and conservative values is no solution at all.  It’s just a plea, “Stop the world I want to get off—why can’t things be the way they used to be?”

Now I’m dwelling on the bad again.  Are my worries just from getting old?  Or do we all have something to be depressed about?

JWH – 7/15/12

11 thoughts on “Is Cynicism a Side-Effect of Aging? – The Mark Twain Syndrome”

  1. I just read an article about Tim Tebow and the author said the USA was becoming more secular. It’s all viewpoint, isn’t it. All human civilizations decline, eventually…at least in our short history. I think the gloom and doom thoughts come from getting older and knowing life is on the decline. Having declining health makes it worse. Watching the news makes it worse, too. Go camping! I know I should. When I get in the wilderness, I feel much better.

    1. There are many things that are uplifting, such as being in nature, or good books, or the success of young people.

      I think this presidential election and the way we’ve reacted to global warming has been particularly depressing to me. I was just watching the news and I noted there were stories that made me more cynical, but there were also stories that made me hope. It guess it’s all perspective.

  2. Let’s see if I can counter your list, Jim:

    Growing economic chaos – but not nearly as bad as during the Great Depression, and we got through that.
    World-wide shift to fundamental religious thinking – but atheism is growing rapidly in America and especially in Europe. The fanatics are increasingly hysterical because they’re losing.
    Diseases becoming immune to our medicines – but medical knowledge growing by leaps and bounds.
    Population growth – but that growth is slowing.
    Dwindling resources – but only energy is the real limiting factor, and we have options there.
    Relentless pollution – actually, much better than it used to be, in many places.
    Uncontrolled debt – but we had more government debt at the end of World War II, yet our economy boomed.
    Political polarization – but that’s nothing new. Don’t you remember the 1960s? Heck, there were riots in the streets.
    Aging population – but that’s good – essential even – if you want population growth to slow down.
    Growing segment of population that’s not in labor force – but not nearly as bad as during the Great Depression. And with technological innovations, we can afford to work less.
    Escalating crime and corruption around the world – no, I think you’ve got this one exactly backwards, Jim. There’s less crime and corruption than ever. Less war, too.
    Rising healthcare costs – but that’s because we live longer, which isn’t such a bad thing. (And that’s another reason why we have an aging population – again, not a bad thing.)
    Rising food costs – but food is dirt cheap compared to what it cost through almost all of human history.
    Global warming and accelerating species extinctions – OK, you’ve got me there. 🙂

    But there are some positive things you missed:
    You and I grew up under the very real threat of global thermonuclear war. That’s far less of a danger today, even if you expect a bigger chance of nuclear terrorism.
    We still have wars, but less all the time. Our current wars can’t hold a candle to World Wars I and II, or even Vietnam and Korea.
    The Internet means that we can have friends worldwide. People overseas aren’t scary strangers anymore, but people you might talk to every day.
    China has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of abject poverty, and they’re currently educating more people – far more – that Europe and America combined. (America helped with that, by eagerly buying Chinese goods.)
    Russia isn’t perfect, but it’s not the Soviet Union, either. Eastern Europe isn’t held behind an Iron Curtain. China isn’t free, but it isn’t Red China. In fact, it’s one of our biggest trading partners. The world looks pretty good, compared to how it used to be.

    I could go on. My point is that, yes, there’s plenty of reason for pessimism, but there’s always been reason for pessimism. And there’s at least as much reason for optimism today – worldwide – as there’s ever been.

    We got through the Great Depression. We got through two World Wars. We ended racial segregation, which had been a blight on America for centuries.

    That was a revolution in thinking, accomplished with remarkably little bloodshed. (Need I remind you that we’ve got a black president?) Today, even conservatives no longer argue against racial equality, any more than they argue against women voting. We won.

    And we are in the middle of another revolution, this one for gay rights, which we’re winning so quickly it’s almost unbelievable.

    We have very real problems, but our ancestors had things far, far worse. Mark Twain had a greater reason for pessimism than you do, Jim. Yup, it’s all perspective.

    1. Bill, I love your rational optimism. And I believe you. But you like to argue. If I had posted a list of reasons to be optimistic, would you have posted a list of reasons to be pessimistic?

      I suppose the glass is perpetually half full and half empty, and I’m just feeling a little half-empty at the moment.


      1. Heh, heh. You know me too well, Jim! But there are usually things to be said on both sides, don’t you think?

        I’m not exactly optimistic, but pessimism gets us nowhere. We’ve overcome worse times in the past, and we can do it again if we remain optimistic. If we give up, we won’t succeed.

        And when you’re pessimistic, it’s always very tempting to just give up.

  3. I’m 69, and I’ve become more positive as I’ve aged. I don’t think that’s rare. See Age and Happiness from The Economist. Things are a lot better now than they were in the 50’s when I was young, and, though they are far from perfect, things seem to be improving. WCG gave a list of details, so I won’t repeat it.

  4. Things are bad but the 30’s and 40’s were horrible, 50 million died in WW II and a depression that lasted 10 years at 25% unemployment along with the Dust Bowl that truly looked like the end of the world..and no Social Security that would really make the Tea Party scream……oh yeah social safety nets are bad…..Jim

  5. I share your opinion that there’s a lot to be depressed about. Even in Australia – we’re doing very well economically and have a low unemployment rate and generally high standard of living, and nice weather etc – but it’s hearing about child neglect and abuse and animal cruelty that bothers me. We do have a nasty side, as a species (what species doesn’t). But either we’ll extinguish ourselves having used up our resources, or collapse, adapt and rise again – as we did after the various empires wound themselves to a halt.

  6. Yes, I too have become cynical. It’s become so bad that I suspect my grandson’s brain surgeon of inventing, for the money, that he needs chemo and radiation. Silly? I agree. Yet, at a time when the ADS promotes root canals as a good thing while knowing they are deadly, and the AMA won’t let proven cancer treatments be promoted, what hope is there for humanity? Loriann

    1. Loriann, would you have felt that way when you were younger? Not to add to your cynicism over medicine, but read An American Sickness by Elisabeth Rosenthal. It will burn you up with anger. Everyone needs to read that book and we all need to change the way our country has turned people’s suffering into a cash cow for the rich.

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