When We Get Bigger

A lot of things change us. Most of us settle into routines where each day begins to look like every other. Minor variations on a theme — sometimes a theme that feels like it’s been drawn out for almost as long as we can remember. Something new happens, or enters into our lives, only to be gradually yet inevitably absorbed into the unique stream that defines our lives.

It is easy, in this, to loose track of the impact even the smallest of our decisions, or our experiences, have had upon that intangible something within us which we know to be ourselves. We have a tendency to disassociate ourselves from the influence of our surroundings. We carry on, through it, around it — adapting, flowing, accepting, occasionally challenging.

I have watched people trying to control all that comes toward them, trying to control every force that might influence the vector in which they have aimed themselves to achieve the ends they have imagined. These people disregard any factor that does not contribute to their ideal, unless that factor might somehow hinder the achievement of that ideal. These people are ruthless, even when their ideal might embrace something “good”.

I have also watched people who move with the tides and currents they find themselves within, enjoying what happiness they glean for the moment, until carried to another shore where they land, or leave, or are blown along some more in their unending journey of self-absolution and denial. These people are also ruthless, yet more subtly, as if their lives could be summarized by the sin of omission. Not a lie, yet not the truth, and they are not responsible for anything.

But most of us live somewhere in between, to varying degrees, each day to day, between the Fundamentalist and the Zen. Driven by artificial goals to achieve one thing or another that we know to be meaningless, or happy and lucky just to have something enjoyable for ourselves, in whatever form that might take. Very few escape these definitions, and none do without paying a price.

The last few days have brought us many stories about an astronaut named Nowak who is charged with the attempted murder of another woman whom she felt threatened her potential relationship with an astronaut named Oefelein. This is most certainly goal-oriented behavior.

I watched the NASA news conference with official statements and questions from the press. NASA is now reviewing the psychological evaluations given to astronauts. Their medical administrators revealed that the after-effects of space travel are of great interest to them, particularly issues related to long-term spaceflight.

It seems that astronauts are subjected to intensive psychological evaluations before they are allowed into space. However, once they have been into space, the psychological aspects are nearly ignored. The flight doctors intimately examine and catalog their physiology, yet their psychology is left to be only noticed by these same medical doctors, trained to notice certain psychological “signs”.

It leaves me wondering, when you travel beyond the solid footing below us, rising up into the weightlessness and vastness of infinity, that even the most rigid minds might become somewhat unhinged. And, in doing so, then returning to the confines of our little island, these people might not imagine themselves as somewhat beyond the confines of our normality.

An infusion of the pure and boundless liberation of chaos, injected into the pristine order of the disciplined military mind.

Yet I heard no questions asked, nor statements made. Even though so many astronauts return to account life-altering experiences that reshape the very foundations of what they feel is important, and who they know themselves to be.

Both Nowak and Oefelein shared that experience. I am certain that most NASA people understand and account for that factor, yet both NASA and the press portray befuddlement. Is such a transformation so difficult to express? Would this officer have exhibited such disregard for a fellow officer had she not experienced such a transformative experience?

These shifts in our perspectives can do interesting things. If we do not pay close attention to the impact our experiences have upon us, these shifts are usually unnoticeable except in hindsight. The decisions we have made, the compromises and sacrifices we have made, what has been given to us, or bestowed upon us, or what we have just fallen into — what we congratulate ourselves for achieving.

What has this done to ourselves? What have we done to ourselves?

Is it too late? Is it too much? Is it not enough?

Are we bigger, or are we smaller?