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”.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

27 thoughts on “There’s No Fool Like an Old Fool”

  1. One of the ways I know I am well into middle age is that, on the subway into DC for work, I pay more attention to ‘who is wearing a toupee’ than ‘who is wearing a brassiere’.

    1. I’m not far behind you in age, but I will (hopefully) always be much more interested in ‘who is wearing a brassiere’. Such encounters are one of the reasons I get up in the morning. ;o)

  2. Always wanting to see the best in people (maybe worrying too much that they will see the best in me), I’ve always had a blindspot for men such as this. I mean, surely I’ve known them, but I’ve always underestimated the extent to which they walk among us, seemingly successfully and capably despite what seem devastating character flaws.

    I was just fired by one a few days ago.

    Well, as a teacher, I was not “elected” for rehire. I’ve thought long and hard about what it was that he thought I lacked, after numerous observations and reviews, trying my best to divine just what exactly it was that he was looking for, I finally failed to measure up. Sure, I have my weaknesses, and much of the problem may lie in pedagogical or philosophical differences. But in the end it may just be that he is a small man with a chip on his shoulder, and who wants to take it out on the world (in this case, the untenured teacher who has no leverage other than the support of students and staff). He’s the type of guy who never smiles, wears sunglasses indoors, walks around with his palms backwards (ala G.W.), and spends 10 minutes of every staff meeting regaling his audience with rock-climbing stories. I have no data on the actual size of his penis. It could be quite long. But metaphorically, these are the guys with such fragile egos, so ravaged by narcissism, that one can only assume their life is spent in perpetual unconscious agony over the fortitude of their member.

    Sometimes life can feel like nothing but a string of painful reminders. These men (and women) walk among us like moral aliens, in so much as we’ll always fail to understand the root of their dysfunction, try as we might. And every once in a while you get cornered by one, outmaneuvered and run off the road.

    Here’s to getting back up. 😉

    1. Eli,

      Good luck in the job search. It never ceases to amaze me how some senior faculty forget what it was like to be untenured. We had one person in my department who believed that everyone should be “fired” (in your sense) from their first tenure-leading position. Whether fortunate or not, his vote against me didn’t get me a terminal year.

      I later learned that he was not tenured in his first position. Envy is a terrible thing.

    2. And here’s one hoisted schooner to you, Eli, for ending on that note. Been there, done that, and probably have done better than I would have, had my quest for tenure worked out as planned. My bete noir told golf and baseball stories, so count yourself lucky. And if you’re asked to give the applicants for your position a tour of the campus, just smile and agree–there are worse things than being in on the joke.

    3. Sorry to hear that Eli. Hope you land somewhere good soon, for your sake for those of the students who will get to have you as a teacher. I always appreciate your thoughtful comments here.

    4. Ran into the exact same person in my field, but was fortunate that others in other places had a different vision. Good fortune to you, Eli. Keep up the good work.

      To Keith’s general point, these men (and they always seem to be men) are everywhere, and always unhappy. They fool only themselves.

    5. Amen to the nice things everyone else said. I think you will find a better job soon!!! I am visualizing it, with the pink bubble, so it has to happen.

      On the indoor sunglasses: unless it’s medical, that’s a very bad sign. And I agree with you — it’s probably not very peaceful to be him.

      I think though that it’s too bad that the rest of us let ourselves off so easily. We all run into people like this, and yet so few of us ever do anything about them.

    1. Thanks, Barry. My options are somewhat limited to the few school districts in my area (Palm Springs). I’m credentialed K-6, as well as Biology and Earth Science at the high school level. Fortunately, there is a dearth of science teachers, so with luck I’ll land something at a school where my talents are more appreciated.

      (btw, sorry for hijacking the thread, Keith. Your piece inspired a good deal of catharsis in me, so thanks for that.)

  3. Just two days ago, I saw an old friend at a conference who told a similar story. At the conference, he’d run into a former colleague, fat, pompous (maybe even a toupe, I can’t recall) and thoroughly dislikable. The guy was now married to a woman many years his junior. He’d married her two weeks after he met her. She’s from Russia, and she was having some problems with her immigration status. “And,” says my friend, “this guy thinks that she’s madly in love with him.”

    1. “And,” says my friend, “this guy thinks that she’s madly in love with him.”

      And little does the rotund, pompous one suspect that мудак , his young bride’s nickname for him, is not quite the term of endearment he was led to believe it is.

    2. It is worth noting, though, that it’s not unusual for a woman to be attracted to an older man (heck, as a teenager I had a bit of a crush on Patrick Stewart, who, I think, was around 50 at the time).

      I understand from your description that this is unlikely to be the case here; but men can be attractive across a fairly wide age range if nature is kind to them, especially if they gain intellect, charisma, and maturity as they grow older.

    3. Ditto Katya. Also, many young women have low self-esteem, which makes them like jerks.

      But they usually do grow out of this, eventually.

  4. I am still trying to right the foundering ship of my career after working for a man like this (minus the toupee and trophy wife). In the time I worked for him, he managed to drive every grad student and postdoc who came through his lab out of academic science… except for me, for whom the question is still open. And he thinks our lack of success is due to declining stock (kids these days just ain’t any good).

    I recognized fairly soon that the problem was his intense insecurity, but I find insecurity that extreme so hard to relate to that knowing didn’t prepare me for how to protect myself. If I manage to stay in the field, I look forward to encouraging my trainees instead of trying to kill their souls.

  5. As one of my Lakota ancestors would be wont to say: Guard your tongue in youth, and in age you may mature a thought that would be of benefit for your people!

    Yes, some of us age gracefully, openly embracing the life’s experiences we are afforded in our temporary stay here. Others, well not so much, and I think your acquaintance Dr. Omphalos is in the latter category, not the former!

  6. Lovely post–thank you. I go to RBC for a laugh and for insight; sometimes there is also wisdom.

  7. The new Mrs. Omphalos hasn’t come in yet for the scorn she deserves. What is it called when you let someone do things to you for money? Then again, she could be in it to advance her career or enhance her social status. Either motive is slightly less contemptible than a pecuniary one, but I can’t find a way to characterize her conduct as not-base or not-pathetic.

    I don’t apply this judgment to the young immigrant woman mentioned above, who would have all kinds of reasons to be desperate and out of better options.

  8. Some thirty years ago one of my older (over 60) colleagues married an undergraduate. Another colleague cracked, “He should be charged with assault with a dead weapon.”

  9. There is a natural male (human?) tendency to think that the aging process stops at 22 years. I’m not trying to defend the old goats: just trying to explain part of their psychology. Even the more sensible older men tend to think that they are 22; they just tend to think that women their own age are also 22.

    1. Yes, the oblivious, aging lothario is a stock character in comic opera; a type know to every generation.

  10. Dave Barry once described Joe Biden’s hairplugs as looking like “an unsuccessful attempt to grow okra.”

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