Distance between astronaut and the rest of us may not be so great

February 15, 2007|By Gordon Livingston

In some ways, every newsworthy event acts as a sort of Rorschach test on which we project our prejudices and conceptions of how the world works. Never has this been more evident than in the public reaction to the strange case of the astronaut "love triangle."

In trying to make sense of the story, people have invoked explanations that include the power of love and jealousy, undiagnosed bipolar illness, drug intoxication, thyroid deficiency, menopause, the social stresses of being a successful woman in a man's world, and the aftereffects of space travel. The permutations are as rich as the data are scanty. It is human to at least try to name what we cannot understand.

What we would rather not contemplate is that each of our lives contains the elements of a tragi-comedy that under certain circumstances could propel us into the kind of notoriety that requires walking around with a jacket over our heads and a GPS device on our ankles.

Who among us has not been surprised at unexpected acts of generosity or hostility - either from ourselves or from others? Usually these behaviors are sufficiently modulated that they do not make the national news. But is there a qualitative difference between the feelings that prompt us to give the truck driver's salute to a fellow motorist and the emotions that might impel us to shoot at him?

The fact is that many among us manifest traits that might generously be described as maladaptive - impulsivity and difficulty controlling anger, for example. These attributes might even result in problems with forming and sustaining close relationships. Although being seen by those around us as a difficult person is not a prescription for happiness, it is not commonly cause for arrest. What if, in addition, we had an intense fear of abandonment and a chronic sense of emptiness? Now we might be uniquely vulnerable to feelings of rejection that might overwhelm whatever "governor" enables most of us to conform our behavior to the requirements of the law.

Does this seem so strange and improbable? Each of our human natures is simply a collection of traits and habits that are largely below the level of our consciousness and about which we appear to know very little. These styles, which we call "personalities," contain attributes of which we are proud - and others we try to disguise. Some of these unexamined characteristics appear to occur in patterns so that it is possible to classify them. For example, people who put a high premium on orderliness and hard work also tend to be inflexible, judgmental and stubborn. Not surprisingly, they tend to be more successful in academic and work settings than in their interpersonal relationships.

Here is life's good news/bad news paradox in its most palpable form: Our greatest strengths are our greatest weaknesses. Similarly, even our capacity for love can betray us. Taken to obsessive extremes, it can beget something very like hate. Our literature and our lives are full of examples of the risks of any human feeling or behavior taken to excess.

What can we learn from the cautionary tale of Lisa Marie Nowak that will elevate the narrative from tabloid entertainment to something more useful to us? We might consider the rapidity with which we have labeled her actions as bizarre or incomprehensible. It is as if we could thereby place these events outside ourselves, thus sparing us the difficulty of trying to understand them or imagining us doing anything similar. The fact that less-visible people daily murder each other in jealous rages ought to be some testimony to the human impulses that all of us share and some of us act on.

Beyond that is the difficulty in knowing the heart of another. We are a goal-directed society. If people do their jobs, their private pain is of little interest to the rest of us. Do we think that a better screening process for astronauts will ensure that these human beings do not fall in love with each other, commit adultery, become jealous, ruin their lives? Can we devise a test that will detect traits and vulnerabilities that people have spent their whole lives concealing, even (or especially) from themselves?

I doubt it.

Gordon Livingston, a psychiatrist who lives in Columbia, is a former military flight surgeon and the author of "And Never Stop Dancing." His e-mail is gslcvk@aol.com.

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