There's a Balloon Boy Inside All of Us

Last week the world watched as a homemade balloon carried a helpless little boy named Falcon Henne off into oblivion. Every news channel was following it in real time, as the nation held its breath over the fate of little Falcon. It was as if we were watching Baby Jessica in the well all over again. Everyone was hoping for the best but fearing the worst. Balloon Boy Falcon was lighting up the Twitter trends. For a few hours, the nation was utterly compelled.

Fast forward a week. Turns out the whole thing was a hoax. Little Falcon was hiding in his family’s attic, instructed by his creepy cultish parents to participate in a little something “for the show” (apparently they wanted to add some media manipulation to their resume in hopes of being featured on a reality show). Meanwhile Falcon has forever been saddled with the “balloon boy” albatross and the distinction of being the only six-year-old to vomit live on The Today Show during an interview with Meredith Vieira. All because his parents are so obsessed with becoming famous that they were willing to whore their little son up to the God of live-via-satellite simulacra.

The Balloon Boy incident is simply the latest reminder that our culture is utterly, aggressively, dangerously obsessed with fame.

These days, it seems like everything else one might do with one’s life is nothing next to that most valued of all achievements: notoriety. And increasingly, fame can come without doing much of anything anyway. It has become an end unto itself, a commodity of attention to which nearly everyone compulsively clamors, grabbing for it and gathering it whenever and however they can.

What’s up with this?

Why do we all obsessively check Facebook to see if someone has commented on our status or photo? Why do we measure the success of our existence by how many retweets it gets? Why do we Google ourselves?

It’s because we all want to be recognized; to have our existence affirmed. It’s a very basic human trait, actually. On Abraham Maslow’s famous “hierarchy of needs,” just above meeting basic survival/safety needs is the need to belong, to be loved, to be accepted, etc. And once we find “acceptance,” our next pursuit is usually to be “affirmed,” respected and regarded in a way that builds our self-esteem.

To put it simply, humans act in a large part for the acceptance of their peers. They want to be noticed. Humans are an image-conscious creation. Once our basic needs are met, we become increasingly concerned not just with ourselves, but ourselves through the eyes of others. Our own evaluation of self-worth is inextricably bound up in what others think of us.

“Do people like me?” is not just a question that the Michael Scotts of this world constantly ask. It’s the core existential hangup of nearly every human who has ever lived. I’m not sure we can change this aspect of our self—this insatiable desire for recognition. Plato called it thymos, and it’s been around for a long time.

But even if we can’t totally rid ourselves of the urge for fame and recognition, I think we can—and should—try to keep it under control. It’s healthy to want to be loved, to want to be affirmed. But where is that affirmation coming from? Other people? Tabloids? Google analytics? The number of Twitter followers we have?

I think we have to consider that sometimes it’s just silly to go around trying to get the attention of other people who are just as weak and attention-seeking as we are. If everyone in the world loved me, how much is that actually worth, at the end of the day? Would it really make me happy?

As a Christian I believe that my ultimate value comes not from any earthly thing. I believe that my worth is found in Christ, who had nothing to gain from me and yet gave it all to save me. He sought me out and affirmed me as valuable, even if I don’t understand why or how. To know that, to believe it, is to be at peace with worldly anonymity. It’s freedom to live and create and strive for purposeful things without obsessing over who’s paying attention—to take risks and make mistakes, to be unattractive on occasion, and to take joy in flying in our little homemade balloons… even if there are no cameras around.