Thursday, February 8, 2007

Stranger Than Fiction

Alright, let's talk about Lisa Nowak.

I know, I know. She's all the buzz on the national media scene. I'm usually resistant to pop news stories, especially ones that run dozens of stories per day on mostly voyeuristic subjects. But this one has me by the short hairs, so indulge me. Or not (that little 'next blog' button up top there is just for you today).

The synopsis: Lisa Nowak, a married (separated) Navy officer and NASA astronaut, drove 900+ miles in ~14 hours to confront the girlfriend (single Air Force officer Colleen Shipman) of another Navy officer and NASA astronaut (divorced William Oefelein) with whom she is known to have had at least a one-sided romantic interest. Yes, 'love triangle' is big in the news. It's better than a movie.

Truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction. Cries of wonder abound in the news coverage about what could have happened to such an accomplished woman that would drive her to such ends. We as a nation are aghast that one of our heroes has done something so unthinkably...ghetto. That's right: I think what most alarms us is that a member of this elite corps of Americans is now overqualified for an appearance on Jerry Springer.

Fact is, this is a very sad situation, and it has nothing to do with the rest of America. It has everything to do with the three adults involved and the Nowak family. If we as individuals insist on being affected by this situation, a requirement for opening our mouths (or columns, or blogs) to speak on it should be first asking ourselves why we hold certain people to higher standards and assign hero status to such folks.

While I'm not refuting that some people ought to be held to a higher standard and/or be granted hero status, I am simply saying that we need to examine the reasons before we spout off or feel betrayed.

Here are my thoughts. What Lisa Nowak has accomplished in her life is very admirable. Her bio is here, and we can all agree it's pretty impressive. Certainly anyone would be praised for wanting to achieve the things she's done, moreso for completing them. Even admission to a military academy makes one elite, let alone finishing and being granted a commission. And let me straighten out a fact: she's identified as a Navy Captain, which most folks don't realize is equivalent to Colonel in the other services--that's just one rank below General.

Maybe I'm engaging in a little hero worship of my own here. So be it.

At the end of the day, what this whole story proves to me is that no matter how accomplished, how educated, or successful we may be, none of us are immune to our humanity. We all have feelings and emotions and things that send us into childish fits. We all have weaknesses and are prone to bad judgments and mistakes. Lisa Nowak had such a fit, and made such a judgment. She was caught and put in a cage, paraded down Main Street, and is currently on display at our American Town Square. Just check your favorite news site every 10 minutes.

Before we feel sad for ourselves over our lost hero or national pride, before we feel sorry even for Captain Nowak, we ought to first consider what this has done to her family, namely her son and daughters, for whom this will be probably a life-altering, maybe life-defining, event. Lisa Nowak's greatest struggle following this will not be going to trial, possibly prison, possibly being dishonorably discharged...but reconciling with her children.

And before we blame Captain Nowak (she'll get what's coming to her, rest assured), let's take a close look at what the media is doing. True, the words I've read in the news stories over the last two days have been pretty objective and cleaned pretty well of anything human or emotional. But I have a serious gripe with the use of her mugshot as a comparison to other photos. On one side we see her NASA publicity pic, a pretty smiling woman, a woman who has done more with her life at age 43 than most people will in their whole lives, and on the other the dark haggard face of a...what are we supposed to see anyway? A criminal? A freak? A homewrecker? A skank? What does a person look like who carries these labels? Like this? Because the woman in that picture is still the 43 year old senior Navy officer with a Master's degree in aeronatical engineering who's been aboard the space shuttle. Seriously, guys. Comparing anyone's best to their worst will yield the same results. It just won't usually tear down public opinion on what we believe is a 'common' American with normal standards of behavior.

What a lot of us are looking for here, including NASA, is a cause or trigger, something they can point to and say "yes, that's what we missed, this is what we need to do differently next time." I've got news for you folks: the problem was there all along, and can never be taken away. No matter what psychological screening process astronauts are put through, every one of them will have the same issue: they are human, living human lives, with marriages and families and credit scores and debts, with qualities good and bad, with flaws and strengths.

The tragic irony of this story is that without these human qualities that make us what we are, we are nothing more than machines. Those that would hide their vulnerabilities are not brave, they are running away from something that defines them. We hold high such figures that present us with stories of unmatched dedication and perseverance, that have accomplished things in their lives we think mean something, and then we tear down those same people when their humanity emerges from behind the veil. The only time we recognize this is after we realize that a fallen hero was, in fact, just like us. How many examples do we have as a culture of the officer-president-hero-JFK's who we quietly acknowledge, after the fact, was a womanizer?

We must not take this, yet another chance, to tell ourselves that being or doing makes one person better than any other. We must resist the compelling urge to hold ourselves higher than this woman who left her family and career to do something that could potentially (and probably will) ruin the whole life she's known. If we feel better than Lisa Nowak the obsessive philanderer, we should be scolding ourselves for putting Lis Nowak the hero astronaut above us before we realized she was human.

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