Before the sensationalism-crazed public could fully absorb The Tale of Three Astronauts, Anna Nicole Smith stole the headlines with her tragic death.

To be honest, I didn’t even know who Anna Nicole Smith was until a few years ago when I happened to see a story about her legal battle over the estate of her 90-something late husband. It’s sad to see a young woman pass away at all, let alone under suspicious circumstances. But what’s even sadder is the seemingly purposeless life she led.

Americans have an insatiable appetite for the deadly combination of fame and outrageousness. Zanies like Emeril Lagasse, Richard Simmons, Ozzy Osbourne, and, yes, the late Steve Irwin have been adored by millions – yet each of these kooky characters at least has had a purpose in life. You may not think much of their purposes, but just about any purpose is a whole lot better than no purpose at all.

What makes someone like an Anna Nicole Smith stand out is her dual deficits of preposterous behavior and (what appeared to be) a total lack of purpose. And she certainly is not an anomaly. Our television screens and newspapers are flooded with such hokum.

When a still-alive-and-unemployed Paris Hilton finds that she can achieve both fame and (more) fortune merely by positing herself as a brainless bimbo, it’s understandable why she would not be able to resist the temptation to continue down the path of least resistance. I don’t think she could get away with claiming that the devil makes her do it, but it certainly would be believable if she were to point a finger at public perversity as the culprit.

In other words, give the suckers what they want.

Millions of Americans can’t get enough of the weird, the wild and the outrageous. And when someone like an Anna Nicole Smith, who was but a poor country girl in her first life, discovers she can become rich and famous without working, can you blame her for giving in to her baser instincts? Why work if you can be adored just for throwing kisses to a crowd?

The problem, however, is that even though the vicarious-living public may love it, the person faking her way through life knows something is wrong. A lie may fool a lot of the people a lot of the time, but the person perpetrating it knows the truth. Outward appearances to the contrary, she knows there is no substance to her life.

The more the media force-fed us the details of Anna Nicole Smith’s wretched life this past week, the more sympathy I felt for her. But not just because of her sudden, premature death. What crossed my mind was what she could have become had she been motivated to find her hidden genius – a genius that everyone possesses.

What if Anna Nicole Smith had used her outgoing personality, her sometimes good looks, her flair for melodrama and her chutzpah to accomplish something meaningful? Doesn’t it stand to reason that these traits could have created real value if channeled in a constructive way? And today, instead of being where she is, she might have been a vital, happy, productive human being – probably with a healthy, happy 21-year-old son by her side … and, of course, a baby girl.

Anna Nicole Smith may not have found meaning in her own life, but her tragic death is not without meaning for those who are inspired by it – inspired not to emulate her, as many foolhardy young people are prone to do, but to choose the path of meaning and purpose … the path of creating value … the path of responsible behavior.

Elvis … John Belushi … Freddie Prinze … Marilyn Monroe … and now poor Anna Nicole. The list is very long. It’s a list that should make you grateful if you have a meaningful purpose in life, and more determined than ever to stay on a responsible course.

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