There’s No Fool Like an Old Fool

As we go through life, we sometimes have the fortune to encounter people who are similar to ourselves in some respects, but older than we are at the present moment. Some of them serve as models to emulate, others as warnings concerning the paths we wish to avoid. In the latter camp, I put a professor whom for privacy reasons I shall refer to here as Dr. Omphalos.

I first encountered Omphalos very early in my career. He was at that point a justly respected full professor in a field related to though distinct from my own. I knew his work and was excited to meet him, but found the interaction dispiriting. He openly disdained my career goals and interests and strongly advised — without being asked for an opinion — that if I wanted to succeed in academia I should be doing everything that he had so wisely done at my age. Hoping to learn from an established older colleague, I instead was put firmly into what he deemed my lowly place. It stung.

His motherly wife, who spent much of her time trying to repair the damage her eminent husband did to others, observed the interaction and was unusually encouraging to me and the other newbies whom he trampled at that particular conference. We were all grateful to her, and glad to see her at future gatherings even though it meant seeing her husband too. “That guy has no idea how lucky he is that she puts up with him”, we agreed. How right we were, but more of that anon.

Omphalos was blithely unaware of the dislike he generated among junior colleagues. I vividly remember him walking slowly through the rooms where early career academics gathered at conferences. He circled and re-circled through the crowd, smiling munificently, nodding knowingly and stroking his beard, evidently gratified at how exciting it was for all of us to be near him.

I saw him every few years after our first meeting, when our substantive interests crossed at a symposium or conference. On each occasion I received more patronizing advice, though as my career went on I grew confident enough not to let it bother me. I also eventually grew sufficiently aware to appreciate that at some level the outwardly confident Omphalos was ridden with fear.

Instead of defining career success in absolute terms, Omphalus had an entirely relative view. Being smart and successful wasn’t enough. Rather, he felt the need to be smarter and more successful than everyone else, and to meet that standard forever. This transformed each generation’s arrival in his field from a source of stimulation to a terrifying threat. Where some saw new colleagues and new ideas, he perceived only a wave of potential usurpers. As he grew older and his powers began to wane, his fear of losing what he considered his eternal throne only intensified.

After perhaps a decade of knowing him, I espied him across a room at a European conference. Standing next to him was an attractive young woman. “Granddaughter?” I wondered. He turned his head and our eyes met. He then almost raced across the room to talk to me, pressing his hand into the young woman’s back so firmly that she was swept along with him.

“Have you met my wife?” he asked, beaming.

Grasping the reality of the situation, I was tempted to say “Yes I have, she’s a wonderful person. How is she doing by the way?”. Instead I waited for what I knew, to my revulsion, was about to happen.

“Show him the ring!” boomed Omphalos. The willowy lass meekly raised her hand, revealing a large diamond inset on a intricately carved gold band, with a plainer but still overdone wedding ring crouching just behind it.

He leaned over and kissed her ostentatiously, pressing his wrinkled face against her smooth cheek. Before I could respond he sighted someone else to whom he wanted to brag, and raced his trophy bride off in another direction.

I did not see Omphalos for a number of years after that, and in no way regretted it.

But the rhythms of professional life eventually brought us together again, at a conference at which he was receiving a lifetime achievement award. I glimpsed him in a hotel corridor, and walked over to sincerely congratulate him. The man was a pompous ass but his scientific work was meritorious and I could acknowledge that in good conscience. It may also be that I was motivated by pity, because I knew a distinguished career award would depress a man who wanted to win “outstanding new investigator” in perpetuity.

However, I was unable to say much of anything when I saw him, because I was distracted by what appeared to be a recently deceased badger on his head. Where once had been an increasingly bare pate was an improbably high mound of black fur, inexpertly attached. I recalled Dave Barry’s remark that some balding men imagine that their combover isn’t noticeable, but the rest of us think it looks like an egg in the grip of some enormous tropical spider.

Omphalos said some words which I don’t recall because I could hardly focus on the conversation. My mental energy was being taxed to the limit by my effort to not stare at the dead badger. Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed multiple people walking by while staring at his faux hair, some of them looking shocked and others struggling not to giggle. But Omphalos did not perceive their reaction or mine. He did not even apparently consider that having known him at this point for almost two decades, there is no way I could imagine that what adorned his head was his real hair rather than a painfully obvious vanity.

Years later, I received an update about Omphalos from a colleague at his university.

“His wife is sleeping with one of the assistant professors in the department. Again.”

“How do you know?” I asked.

“Everyone knows. She’s obvious about it. I think she half-wants HIM to know, but for some reason he doesn’t. It’s inadmissible in his mind that a young woman wouldn’t be fully satisfied sleeping with a self-involved blowhard who gets his Viagra covered by Medicare”.

Omphalos passed away not long after that. Death I imagine must have surprised him, as he would have considered himself both too important and too young to suffer such a fate.

Did he die happy? Perhaps he did. His self-delusions may have been strong enough to resist the evidence of his senses, present every time he put his fake hair on his hoary head in the mirror, overheard the increasingly derisive whispers of his colleagues, and saw his young wife wince at his withered body’s efforts at physical affection.

What I do know though, as mid-life begins to recede in my rear view mirror, is that I do not want to emulate the many Dr. Omphalus’ I have known, whether they are inwardly happy or not. Partly it is because I regard their selfishness as inherently immoral, but I am equally influenced by my desire to have my physical aging be matched with progress in wisdom and maturity beyond what I possessed as an adolescent.

Facing up to the stark facts that none of us is truly essential and all of us get old isn’t easy, but denial is worse. It leads to jealous rivalry with those who actually are young when the appropriate (and highly gratifying) role would be to mentor them. And the chasing of one’s lost youth, whether through laughable cosmetic exercises or the romantic pursuit of jejune partners, is at best embarrassing and at worst destructive to the social fabric. And in the end you will die just like everyone else, except that you will do so a fool.

As my dear 81 year old friend Michael, a model of successful, gracious aging likes to quote: “A man must live all the ages of his life, lest the gods mock him”.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.