Peak Experiences

I saw in yesterday's news that NASA has fired Lisa Nowak from the astronaut program, and sent her back to military duty. I thought about her plight, as well as that of people like Britney Spears and Anna Nicole Smith. Was there a common thread to their self-destructive behavior? And then I thought of something, with which you may or may not agree: Some people's self-destructive behavior can be explained by their inability to recapture a peak experience.

Let's look at Lisa Nowak's career, for instance. She was an astronaut, part of a highly-competitive, high-achieving group. There are more astronauts in the program than there are flight slots on the Shuttles. Some astronauts spend years waiting for their opportunity to go into space, as Ms. Nowak did. Even if an astronaut does everything perfectly, there's still a chance that they'll never have another opportunity to break the surly bonds of Earth again. People don't enter the astronaut corps with a dream of being ground support personnel; they want to fly in space. They want to be Captain Kirk. And when they finally do make it into space, if they do, it is the peak experience of their career. For those days or weeks in space, they do what so many others can only dream of doing. They can look down upon the Earth from orbit, and that has to be a life-altering experience.

But what do you do when that peak experience is past? What do you do when you've landed and you know that you'll probably never get to do it again? That is what Ms. Nowak was looking at when she came back from last summer's Shuttle mission. Only those who have known such lofty peak experiences can understand the bitter disappointment of knowing that they can never be achieved again. But what does that do to a person? It could cause him or her to reassess his life, personal relationships, etc. And this was the time frame in which her marriage was falling apart, although it appears that she had been having an affair with Bill Oefelein for some three years, so apparently her marriage was none too healthy even before her peak experience.

How does this compare to Anna Nicole Smith? Well, she had made a long career out of her sex appeal, from the early days with Playboy, to marrying into big (and very, very old) money, to parlaying it into a television show in which she competed with Ozzie Osbourne to find out which celebrity was more wasted. But as any woman knows, youth's a thing that will not last. Anna Nicole was pushing 40, and the older a woman gets, the harder it is to compete with the younger, firmer sex kittens in her business. Perhaps this knowledge, and the inability to recapture her peak experiences of her younger days, led to the self-medication that seems likely to have contributed to her death.

And Britney Spears, like other former child stars, is finding that it's hard to stay on top in the popularity contests. What must it be like to have your greatest career success in your teens, and know that you're never likely to be able to top it for the rest of your life, no matter how hard you try? It's no big surprise that so many of those child stars end up with substance abuse problems, as they try to find something that feels as good as all of that attention and adulation that they used to get.

In the fairy tales, the hero slays the dragon and marries the beautiful princess and lives happily ever after. In real life, however, even if you get everything you ever dreamed of, then the problem is knowing that you have nothing left to strive for. Alexander the Great wept because there were no more worlds to conquer. He'd had his peak experience, and it was all downhill from there.