During the early days of space travel, astronaut jokes were common. As with most genre humor, the jokes were not about astronauts or even the Mercury, Gemini, or Apollo programs. They were really about human nature. By the time Skylab came around in the mid-seventies, astronaut jokes had all but died, although my father continued to tell them. I remember one in particular.
Did you hear about the monkey they sent into space with an astronaut? The rocket launched and immediately the monkey was busy on his phone receiving instructions from Ground Control concerning the position, velocity, and guidance of the vehicle in order to make corrections. Then, when they reached orbit the monkey’s phone went dead and the astronaut’s phone rang.
“Ah, finally, something important!” the astronaut exclaimed. “Don’t forget to feed the monkey,” Ground Control reminded him.
On the surface, this joke is funny because of its irony, its absurdity, but as I think about it so many years later, I find it sad. Out of all the astronaut jokes “flying around” at the time, my father choose to tell that one. Why did he find it so funny?
Did my father think of himself as irrelevant or of such little worth that he identified with the astronaut? I may be making too fine a point here, since, really, who would identify with the monkey? Still, I think there was more going on with my father and the joke than the surface absurdity. My father was certainly not a failure, but I can see how he might have felt overlooked and undervalued, especially as he got older.
He is not the only one. I am mentoring a woman in her forties, divorced, with two children who has had all the confidence from earlier success in business knocked out of her. She feels taken for granted, not appreciated, and contributing nothing of value to the organization she currently works for.
Part of the problem is demographic as more people enter the workforce and compete with each other. Part of it is age, which provides so much perspective that the things that concern younger people baffle us. But part of it has to do with the nature of work or, at least, how we envision it.
I am still annoyed as I think back on a lecture by a “futurist” about the future of work in which she lauded technology and explained how we will all have more time to pursue important things as technology gets faster, smarter, and more integrated into our lives (and clothing). This is the so-called “Internet of Things.” Sure, except by then no one will want to pursue anything other than work, which has already happened. Even play has become work as we ensconce ourselves in worlds of virtual reality.
People like my father and this woman who identify with the astronaut and find themselves sitting by, waiting in secondary roles to contribute something not just to the organization but society, inhabit an existential “fly-over space.” A spiritual space. It would be the equivalent of living in Kansas rather than New York or Los Angeles. Yet, both my father and friend made the greatest contribution to society in the form of family.
The real lesson of the monkey joke is to stop feeding the monkey. Limits may exist on what we can do because of natural ability or job function, but we still have a say in the way other people treat us. We can show them by example to treat us with dignity and respect. But here’s the kicker. We have to believe it ourselves. We have to believe we are worthy of respect, which means not sitting idly by, waiting for the phone to ring.
How do we do that? By recognizing that failure and rejection lie at the heart of an authentic life. They provide insight that success cannot and never will. It turns out that hardship is the way to the stars (aspera ad astra). That’s how you get there, not with a Saturn V rocket.
Image Credits: Feature by Francesco Ungaro on Unsplash. Rocket by Annie Spratt on Unsplash. Flickr photo “Dr Zaius Planet of the Apes Space Suit 8252” by Brecht Bug, 2.0 Generic license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), cropped to size.