A couple of years ago I met a man who I thought was very intelligent. He was very successful, had done many interesting things, and his life shared several uncanny similarities with mine. He married a woman his senior as I have, and he read many of the same books and appreciated the same philosophy and art. He also came from a region of Europe that many of my ancestors came from. His wife once said we looked like brothers, and given the small country he came from and the number of my ancestors that emigrated from there, it was even possible that we were distantly related.
But very quickly things changed. I found that the similarities between us were superficial and that there were some very significant differences. He liked wielding power – whereas I instinctively shy from it. He seemed to get a thrill from looking down on people with his education and the status his profession conferred on him. I come from humble stock and try to follow in the path of the Beats who saw ordinary people as being closer to enlightenment than those who posed as enlightened. I occasionally slip into elitism, and when I do I have been blessed with a wife who has no qualms with smacking me upside the head and yelling at me to snap out of it.
Worst of all my friend never listened to anyone. He always did most of the talking, and when you did manage to squeeze a word or two in it was clear that he didn’t accept what you said at face value. Instead he interpreted it, translating it through his viewpoint and cleansing it of your perspective before coloring it with his own. As a consequence he couldn’t learn anything because he knew everything. The old saying is that even Homer nods, but not this man. He truly believes that he has all the answers.
It wasn’t always this way. I’ve spoken to people who knew him when he first arrived in the area. Apparently back then he was quite personable and got along well with everyone no matter what their station in life or educational background.
But over the years he changed. Little by little his circle of friends became smaller although he would try populating it with new faces. I was one such face. But very soon the new faces would catch on and drift away, leaving him with an ever smaller cohort of people who were willing to put up with his narcissism.
I tried to reach out to him. At first I thought he was a misunderstood genius, a man like me whose insecurities lay beneath a thick crust of arrogance and cynicism. But these attempts were rebuffed. One day I sent him a copy of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan, one of the most influential books I have ever read. Weeks later I asked him about it. He didn’t like it (which was his prerogative of course) but the reason bothered me; he said he didn’t learn anything new from it.
I have been in software development and design for over 12 years, and there is currently a push by the federal government to get medical practices to use information technology. To help his practice I investigated electronic medical records systems in my free time. I talked to vendors, installed trial versions, and corresponded with health care providers about what they liked – or didn’t – about their systems. He wasn’t interested in my findings (also his prerogative) but what was worse in my opinion was why. He implied that I didn’t understand practicing medicine, even though I was married to a doctor and grew up with a close sister who was a nurse. This statement stunned me. It was the equivalent of saying that only photographers could design photo software because only they understood photographs, or only astronauts could engineer space flight control systems because only they knew what to expect in space. This was such a basic fallacy that I couldn’t believe my friend believed it. Even though I have been personally involved with the design and modification of complex IT systems worth hundreds of millions of dollars, he didn’t listen to my opinion, or worse, value it.
Eventually he crossed a line, a very important limit, and he attacked when he should have restrained himself. All he had to do was put up his hands and say “Okay, where do we go from here? How do we stop this deterioration and salvage this relationship?” But he couldn’t bring himself to do that. Apparently it just wasn’t his way. He only knows how to intimidate and hurt people, and so he did just that, and he’s quite good at it. Very effective.
By crossing the line he became the bully to me that others are well acquainted with. But I’ve been dealing with bullies since I was 12. They are not exotic nor particularly difficult to handle. I have dealt with so many through the years that I have almost a set routine for how to handle them. And so I have.
For all of his knowledge, for all of his status and wealth, he isn’t one of the most intelligent men I’ve ever met. No, I meet far smarter men every day, humble men who treat everyone with respect no matter how much schooling they have, nor how much – or little – respect the people they deal with actually deserve. For all his schooling, and all his material success, he is nothing more than an idiot.
And that scares me because for all the differences the similarities between us still exist. I don’t want to become like him. I want to listen to others and learn from them. I don’t want to ever believe that I know everything, or even a smidgen more than anything. I want to retain the humility that the pursuit of knowledge requires and not descend into narcissism. I treasure the freedom of curiosity that pushes one to search; the fun in the quest for understanding is in the chase, not in the destination. While lost friendship is painful, I do hope that at the last I can learn from the experience.
UPDATE: Yet I almost can’t help but feel sorry for him. He simply has lost the ability to see things from the perspective of others, and worse, has lost the ability to empathize with them. He kind of reminds me of my eldest rescued dog – a portly old beagle who had lived her entire life outside in the grass and mud. No matter how I try, I can’t housebreak her; the concept is simply lost on her because she spent her entire life outside, most likely living in her own filth. Training her is pointless; she will never change. And I doubt my friend will ever change back. For some reason that makes me terribly sad.