Older and Depressed?

The other day one of my readers asked, “Is there anything positive you can talk about or have you slid too far down the slope of elder grouchiness and discontent?”  That’s a good question in one respect, because I do believe that there is a definite tendency, if one is intelligent and perceptive, to become more cynical as one gains experience.

Psychological studies have shown, however, that people who suffer depression are far more accurate in their assessments of situation than are optimists, and that may be why optimism evolved – because it would be too damned hard to operate and get things done if we weighed things realistically.  For example, studies also show that entrepreneurs and people who start their own businesses invariably over-estimate the chances of their success and vastly underestimate their chances of failure.  This, of course, makes sense, because why would anyone open a business they thought would fail?

There’s also another factor in play. I spent nearly twenty years in Washington, D.C., as part of the national political scene, and after less than ten years I could clearly see certain patterns repeat themselves time after time, watching as newly elected politicians and their staffs made the same mistakes that their predecessors did and, over the longer term, watching as each political party gained power in response to the abuses of its predecessor, then abused it, and tried to hold on by any means possible, only to fail, and then to see the party newly in power immediately begin to abuse its power… and so on. It’s a bit difficult not to express a certain amount of “grouchiness and discontent,” especially when you offer advice based on experience and have it disregarded because the newcomers “know better”… and then watch them make the same kind of mistakes as others did before them.  My wife has seen the same patterns in academia, with new faculty and new provosts re-inventing what amounts to a square wheel time after time.

It’s been said that human knowledge is as old as written records, but human wisdom is no older than the oldest living human being, and, from what I’ve seen, while a comparative handful of humans can learn from others, most can’t or won’t.  And, if I’m being honest, I have to admit that for the early part of my life I had to make mistakes to learn, and I made plenty. I still make them, but I’d like to think I make fewer, and the ones I make are in areas where I don’t have the experience of others to guide or warn me.

The other aspect of “senior grouchiness,” if you will, is understanding that success in almost all fields is not created by doing something positively spectacular, but by building on the past and avoiding as many mistakes as possible. Even the most world-changing innovations, after the initial spark or idea, require following those steps.

I’m still an optimist at heart, and in personal actions, and in my writing, but, frankly, I do get tired of people who won’t think, won’t learn, and fall back on the simplistic in a culture that has become fantastically complex, both in terms of levels and classes of personal interactions and in terms of its technological and financial systems. At the same time, the kind of simplicity that such individuals fall back on is the “bad” and dogmatic kind, such as fanatically fundamental religious beliefs and “do it my way or else,”  as opposed to the open and simple precepts, such as “be kind” or “always try to do the right thing.”  I’m not so certain that a great portion of the world’s evils can’t be traced to one group or another trying to force their way – the “right way,” of course, upon others.  The distinction between using government to prohibit truly evil behavior, such as murder, abuse of any individual, theft, embezzlement, fraud, assault, and the like, and forcing adherence to what amounts to theological beliefs was a hard-fought battle that took centuries to work itself out, first in English law, and later in the U.S. Constitution and legal system.  So when I see “reformers” – and they exist on the left and the right – trying to undermine that distinction that is represented by the idea of separation of church and state [although it goes far beyond that], I do tend to get grouchy and offer what may seem as depressing comments.

This, too, has historical precedents.  Socrates complained about the youth and their turning away from the Athenian values… but within a century or so Athens was prostrate, and the Athenians never did recover a preeminent position in the world. Cicero and others made the same sort of comments about the Roman Republic, and in years the republic was gone, replaced by an even more autocratic empire.

So… try not to get too upset over my observations. After all, if more people avoided the mistakes I and others who have learned from experience point out, we’d all have more reasons to be optimistic.


17 thoughts on “Older and Depressed?”

  1. j says:

    I’ve read your blog for years and appreciate even your most negative posts. But the one (negative?) thing I would say is that it would be nice if you occasionally suggested solutions, even very small ones. When you describe seemingly unfixable systemic problems, it’s depressing more because it inspires a kind of fatalism than because your observations themselves are negative. I know we have very little individual control over the course of the world, but surely we aren’t completely helpless either.

    Sometimes the only difference between depression and resolve is the awareness of a possible solution, or at least a possible improvement to the way things are, however minor. And wisdom isn’t just about seeing the ways things always go wrong, it’s also about seeing the point where a better choice might make things go a little more right.

    I’m pretty sure your novels agree with this last point but it sometimes is less apparent from your blog.

  2. Tim says:

    There comes a time when impetuosity (of youth) is replaced by increased caution and reasoned decision. This is not “elder grouchiness and discontent”, it is maturity. Some will view this as holding a negative outlook.

    In the same way, if you build a senior management team, the last thing you do is invite people in who agree with you or have similar views. To get a balanced and achievable result, you need constructive tension through debate. That is what LEM does.

    LEM : you should be grateful that you were not termed “author emeritus”

  3. mbaren says:

    I remember reading that reader post. I just kept thinking, “Well, if you don’t like it, then stop reading his blog”.

    I largely enjoy your blog posts, just as I largely enjoy the bulk of your writing. But no one’s forcing me to read any of ’em. If one day I get too upset, I suppose I’ll stop – my feedback will come in the form of fewer hits to the site webstats, and one fewer books sold. But you’re under no obligation to do anything at all to make *me* happy.

  4. Bain says:

    I enjoy your blog posts,some people are just plain dumb. If the truth hit home with some of these people you have may them think a little more. Mr Modesitt you are very generous with your time and patience. I myself would be weary of there lack of common sense and I am a grouchy youngest. Thank you

  5. Brian says:

    Twenty years ago a friend handed a book to me and said, “Here. I think you might like this.”

    I did. The quotation beginning Chapter I, HISTORY AS PRACTICAL EXPERIENCE, triggered an epiphany. I’ve tried to apply the advice ever since, to varying degrees of success. The quote, attributed to Bismarck, but by no means original to him, goes as follows:

    “‘Fools say that they learn by experience. I prefer to profit by others’ experience.'”

    Oh, the book? Liddel Hart, B. H., STRATEGY, pg. 3.

    1. Tiffanie H. says:

      Nice Brian. You’ve said it in a nutshell.

      Mr. Modesitt,
      I would just like to thank you for offering us this place to vent. Your articles are as thought provoking as your books. None of us are going to agree on everything. The world would be plain boring if we did.
      And some people need to learn how to be more tactful when arguing a point.

  6. Chad says:

    Note to a few of the above commenters. I did not claim the author was wrong, I just claimed the theme for the last few dozen blog entrys is negative and slanted against anything new. Politcs. Todays youth. Evolving publishing. Todays society. Republicans. Higher eductation. You name it and we here about whats wrong with it.

    One thing though… if you are young while the changes happen they become the new normal and the young still find happiness in it and even comfort. Yes it is different then what we lived with or grew up with but we can’t blame the young. They are living in the world we made for them and follow the rules we taught them or let them discover for themselves.

    Why do I read this blog… because I have read this authors works for almost two decades. I am just saddened to read the one sided views of his posts. The author explained why they are that way and the reasons are as I expected them to be. The comment “why do you read the blog then” is a good one and I am getting closer to point when I will avoid it. Surround yourself with positive poeple and you will be positive…immerse yourself with negativety and you will be negative.

    I do know that reading this blog has soured me on the Authors works. A few years ago I would preorder all the latest in Hard Back. This has enthusiasm has dwindled up unto the authors recent post on our dirivative society. I was struck reading that post by the realization that the authors works are the same thing… dirivative from his previous works. Ever since I have looked at the works in a new light and it even shocked me so much that I returned that most recent novel “Princeps” unread. That was something I had never ever done in the past with any author.

    I am just a reader and a customer. I am the stubborn sort that if the author expouses something which I dislike, I then lose interest. I was a fan of Scalzi and even earned a mention by name in one of his fowards. he made a blog post once that turned me off to him so much I have not sought, bought or cared for another of his works again. Mr Modesitt is for all intents at the same point with me. His actions might make for loyal fans but for some it drives them away.

    Thanks for a few wonderful memories and I hope you find joy in a few aspects of our world and its future.

    1. Joe says:

      Out of curiosity: What do you find to be both positive and new? For instance, I find Elon Musk’s SpaceX endeavor to be a valuable new endeavor, especially if it does lead to spreading life to another planet.

    2. I find a great deal of joy in the world, and it seems to me that, as do a few others, you’re reading into what I write who you think I am and what you think I write. Quaeryt, for example, in the book you returned largely unread, finds great joy in Vaelora, despite all the problems he faces. I’m a man who looks for solutions, but the first step in finding solutions to societal problems is recognizing them for what they are, not accepting them blindly because “times change.” Times do change, and some of the changes, ranging from medical science to the Hubble Telescope and nanotechnology, not to mention many others, are indeed wonderful. Degraded basic education,the insanity of social networking gone wild, and a political system on the verge of deadlock/collapse, as well as other problems I’ve cited, wild are not. I don’t need to rave about the good to appreciate it.

  7. Ryan Jackson says:

    I’m curious why having a somewhat cynical outlook on certain things somehow equates to being cynical and bitter as a whole?

    Case in point, I spend my days investigating credit card fraud. Quite frankly this has lead to certain jaded views on various things, from seeing certain buying patterns and immediately assuming organized crime, to rolling my eyes when someone makes some comment about the evil corporation, to just throwing my hands up in the air at the willing negligence so many people seem to have for their own finances and personal security. If you ask my opinion about any of these case I’m going to come of cynical and jaded to the extreme.

    More to the point, if I were actually able to publish a blog, that would be the topic I’d focus on. Not because the whole world is doomed or any such, but because these are things I feel are important and want other people to pay attention to.

    But get me talking on nearly any other topic and my entire personality changes, I’m actually usually insanely optomistic and expect the best out of people despite the bitterness I exude in one area.

    So maybe the arguement could be made for Mr Modesitt to touch on things he feels are going well once in a while? I could see that arguement. But the idea that he’s old and grouchy, or that his opinions reflect all he is?

    I just don’t see where you’re coming from, I’m afraid.

    On a side note, I think calling his work deritive or claiming it’s the same story is a gross diservice. Sure yuo can break his books down to “Person faces who they truly are and how the world works, gain power, triumph and find love.” But really, that’s the world, that’s most stories. The relevence, worth and interest in a work for me rarely have to do with the core archtype and layout, it’s who the characters are and how they deal with specific situations. In that case I can say I’ve felt that each protagonist in Mr Modesitt’s work have been unique individuals different from their peers in his other works.

    1. Ryan Jackson says:

      Sorry, had an additional point. And as an aside I apologize for spelling, never been the best editor and fired this off quick during a work break.

      As I was reading your Questions to the Author section I noticed your April entry, where you address both this topic as well as your outlook in a way that says what I was going after much better. Thought I’d point that out for everyone.

  8. Tim says:

    Surrounding oneself with positive people does not necessarily lead to a positive outlook. Often it can lead to a balancing attitude, which is how good teams are also made. When all have the same “happy path” viewpoint, it can lead to having unrealistic and achievable aims. I remember some ghastly professional management training years ago when we all forcibly encouraged to have a positive outlook. You can guess what happened – we decided to rebel, to a man and woman.

    LEM’s books cater to my desire that Good will triumph over Evil. Just what I need after dealing with corporate politics. Keep on writing!

    I have not yet committed any to Tiffanie’s fire.

    1. Tiffanie H. says:

      Ha Ha.
      You’ve succeeded in getting a rise out of me.
      I still hold that crap is crap and should be disposed, not given to someone else.
      And if you’re insinuating that I’ve burned any of LEM’s books, let me set the record straight: I have not.
      So far.
      And I don’t think I will have to, unless our author/friend has a complete personality change, loss of brain function, or starts taking hard-core drugs, and even then…
      Since I’m here, I might as well comment on the positive/negative aspect of the conversation. From what I’ve seen, it usually takes a lot of negativity to bring about change, which usually turns out being a POSITIVE thing.
      Don’t discount negativity.
      For without it where would we be?

    2. Sam says:

      I have to strongly disagree with the assertion that Mr Modesitt’s books are about good triumphing over evil. At best in most cases I see them as being about lesser evil triumphing over greater evil.

      I’ve never been that interested in Star Wars – Star Trek and Doctor Who were my sci-fi franchises of choice. However over the last couple of years I’ve had my interest stoked and begun reading some of the expanded universe novels.

      Whilst reading some of those novels I came to the realisation that many of the protagonist’s journey’s in Mr Modesitt’s novels bear much in common with the rise to power of a Sith Lord – the epitomy of evil in the Star Wars universe.

      Perhaps the clearest example of this to me was the character of Darth Bane in the novel Darth Bane: Path of Destruction. It was whilst reading that novel – particularly the early chapters – that I was struck by the similarities between Bane and a number of Mr Modesitt’s protagonists.

      Many of the Sith Lord’s started out with the best of intentions but ultimately were ruined by their own ethos that the ends justify the means. One regrettable but neccessary act followed another until in the end anything and everything was justified and they were unable to distinguish between right and wrong.

      When Van Albert wiped out his home star system in the Ethos Effect I struggled to see how anyone could justify such an act. How many innocents did he kill and what right did one man – any one man – have to make that decision. I also had to wonder if he had any friends or family back home who died by his hand as a result of his decision.

      How was Van Albert any different than Emperor Palpatine who built the Death Star to hold the galaxy to ransom in order to impose his idea of order and stability?

      There are times when the choice to act or not to act and the consequences are equal. However I think if you give a man the power of a god he possesses neither the wisdom of a god nor the moral authority of one to act wisely with that power – particularly when such action directly costs lives. Even in the case where inaction may very well cost more lives and create more strife than action. No one man should get to make that choice for everyone else.

      If hypothetically I woke up tomorrow and discovered that I had the power to end all life in the universe from the tiniest microbe to the largest animal simply by willing it so would I have the right to make that choice? If I did so I would put an end once and for all to famine, disease, war, poverty, suffering and death not only for all human beings but for all living things. An end to all suffering is a laudable goal is it not?

  9. How many innocents were killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki… and how many millions did the detonation of those bombs save? In the terms by which you describe the universe, there is no absolute good, only degrees of evil. Almost every single act we take as individuals effectively kills something, because we need to eat to live and even vegetarians kill plants. You’re just arguing that there’s an upper limit, beyond which killing is unjustifiable, regardless of how many lives it saves. As for the argument that killing everything alleviates suffering, that’s either a cop-out or a belief that humans, or others, are incapable of reducing or transcending suffering, if not both.

    1. Sam says:

      There is a belief in some quarters that Japan may have surrendered within a matter of weeks regardless of the bombings. That the only reason they hadn’t already was that they were hanging onto the last tattered vestiges of their pride.

    2. Sam says:

      I should add that you’re right. I don’t believe in good and evil. Not in an objective sense anyway. I do believe in subjective evil, ie. what harms me or the things I care about is evil to me but not necessarily to others.

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