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The Balloon Boy Story: Suffering Exemplified

The Balloon Boy story – a Colorado family released a UFO-like weather balloon and pretended their son was aboard to garner media attention – has gotten weirder and weirder since it’s inception as a relatively mundane Child In Crisis news cycle. I don’t like following these sensations because I’m not immune to getting sucked in to each new development – ultimately, they’re a waste of time – but this one brings together so many uniquely American cultural productions (the deep craving for fame, Reality TV, UFOs, 24-hour news media and shadow-government paranoia) that it is both repellent and wonderfully complete. 

At it’s root, though, I see a story about suffering.

From the New York Times

In another twist to the case, the gossip Web site Gawker paid a 25-year-old Denver man, Robert Thomas, to write about his experience working with Mr. Heene, whom Mr. Thomas described as a business associate.
In the account posted on Gawker, Mr. Thomas said he and Mr. Heene had drawn up a pitch for a reality television show centered on off-kilter science experiments. The two planned to pitch the idea to the producers of “Wife Swap,” Mr. Thomas said.
One proposed episode was based on the launching of a flying saucer to lure U.F.O.’s, according to a treatment written by Mr. Thomas and posted on Gawker.
“This will be the most significant U.F.O.-related news event to take place since the Roswell Crash of 1947, and the result will be a dramatic increase in local and national awareness about the Heene family, our reality series, as well as the U.F.O. phenomenon in general,” Mr. Thomas wrote in the treatment.


And it gets better/worse: 

Mr. Thomas described Mr. Heene as obsessed with fame and wild theories, among them that the upper echelon of the American government was actually a race of alien beings called shape-shifters.

Why does this belong on a mindfulness-themed blog? Because I look at the decision that started this whole mess, Richard Heene launching a balloon and then calling the police to say his son was aboard, and see suffering. Only a desperate person would pull such a stunt, and while I don’t condone what he did – it’s deeply irresponsible, wasteful, and selfish – I also don’t hear a lot of discussion about how notions of success and isolation and celebrity are at play. 
Heene is responsible for his actions, but he also seems to be an individual torn by the fantastic demands of a subculture of reality TV contestants who thrive on the attention their 15 minutes brings. From The Lede:

Richard Heene and his wife have been enmeshed for years in the subculture of reality television and self-promotional Web postings. They have appeared twice on ABC’s “Wife Swap,” and Mr. Heene has been floating a proposal for a televisions series about his family, which the cable channel TLC turned down months ago. He has posted YouTube videos claiming to show proof of life on Mars asking whether Hillary Rodham Clinton is a “reptilian.” Neighbors also said Mr. Heene was a storm chaser, who followed the path of tornadoes and other weather events and was interviewed about his escapades on local television.  


I can imagine how easily his life became a zero-sum game: Either reclaim some celebrity or fade in to utter non-existence, bogged down in the very real challenges of everyday life. 
The lesson I take from this is bleak: As a culture, we’re fascinated by people who are contorted and, ultimately, destroyed by fame. But it’s our very fascination that provides fuel for the next sensation, the motivation for the next Richard Heene. It’s a type of collective samsara that I don’t see ending any time soon.

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Your Name

posted October 20, 2009 at 6:27 pm

The Balloon Boy appeared on NBC with his family for an interview before the story was declared a hoax. He vomited repeatedly and mumbled, “We did it for the show.”
His suffering was clear to all who were watching; although they are disturbed, I have less compassion for his parents.
We all lose when we make self-regard a hostage to the media or to displays of wealth, forgetting the riches that reside within.

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posted October 20, 2009 at 7:46 pm

I haven’t seen that, but it’s saddening. And you’re right – I didn’t even address the boy’s suffering, or the damage being done to the kids.
In a sense, I suppose I’m as culpable as the news networks because I’m blogging it, hoping people will read my thoughts, generating traffic around it.

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Anan E. Maus

posted October 21, 2009 at 11:27 am

I like your thoughts on this matter.
I agree.
A society that is not centered in morality is a recipe for disaster.

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posted October 21, 2009 at 11:49 am

Centered around whose morality?

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Eric Lorentzen

posted October 22, 2009 at 1:45 am

This is no more than madness and manipulation.

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My Name

posted October 23, 2009 at 10:33 am

My first reaction — ‘How sad that they so need attention and how pathetic that they have to get it this way’
My second reaction — ‘It’s not really my problem, and I can’t see how I, or anyone else, can solve it for them.’
My third reaction — ‘Hmm. What can I learn from it?’ and ‘How can an event (or sub-event?) like this influence my life?’
My fourth reaction — ‘Well, life goes on in the rest of the world, so let’s just get on with it.’

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John Sandison

posted October 23, 2009 at 10:48 am

There’s a very old saying that goes something like this “when you point your finger at someone, three are pointing back at you”, and sadly this is what is happening here.
Instead of being grateful that the boy is alive and well, whether or not he went up in a balloon, and ignoring the rest what do we do? We start pointing a finger at the parents and apportioning blame. So does the media and so do the authorities. The net result is that the parents achieve the very publicity that they were looking for in the first place.
The best way to reduce a narcissists ego is to ignore him, and really, is this stunt so important that we must give it energy by reacting at all? Of course this goes for me too!

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Janine McGuire

posted October 23, 2009 at 12:07 pm

I agree with the comment if we ignored the issue once the boy was found safe it would reduce the parents emotional payoff.
I disagree with the one that says it is not our problem. We have become a culture that isolates even in a crowd. We insist we are not involved when the truth is we are all connected. If we stopped ignoring the people and other lifes we share the planet with this kind of thing might not have happened. We hoard our caring and love to ourselves then wonder why we are so lonely.
To who’s morality I say basic morality of honesty and to not harm others when not threatened. Watch the animal world if you do not threaten them they do not get defensive. If they are not hungry they don’t hunt.
When you pass people in the store do you recognize “there goes another me.”? When you pass people in the street do recognize there goes God/Goddess/All that is? Do you honor the stranger you meet as you want to be honored?

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Your Name

posted October 23, 2009 at 12:38 pm

John Sandison: Instead of being grateful that the boy is alive and well, whether or not he went up in a balloon, and ignoring the rest what do we do? We start pointing a finger at the parents and apportioning blame.
Well, being all warm and fuzzy about the child being safe is fine and good, but a felony was perpetuated.

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Maji Devi

posted October 23, 2009 at 5:01 pm

The ego must be entertained and will do anything for attention in the process. The sickness is in the man who allows this ‘takeover’ of his mind and beingness and ultimately his family, loved ones and even the general public. Om Mani Padme Hum…Whishing this suffering man love and peace.

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posted October 23, 2009 at 9:15 pm

Oh, would it were that this child in anguish because of his parents were a child in joy because of his parents who love him in provident faith. Apparently and sadly, especially for him, they love him in a rather dubious way and less than themselves for sure. Form above substance is the principal mode of the Materialist.

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