As a boy I was fascinated by space travel. I remember being glued to the television set with awe as the Space Shuttle blasted off into space back in the early 80s – I was born after the epic Apollo programme came to an end and was just the right age to appreciate the engineering accomplishments in launching the Shuttle, without having fully lost my sense of wonder and amazement at the idea of man (and woman) going into space.
In recent years and months it seems a new type of space race has emerged – one that for me lacks much of the romance of the Apollo and even the Shuttle programme and instead halls of something very different indeed. I am referring to the race which seems to be be the vanity project of three of the richest (one middle-aged, and two bordering on elderly) men – Bezos, Branson and Musk.
What drives them?
Well, I am a good psychotherapist but cannot mind read. Nonetheless, there is some commonality between the three which I shall cover further on in this piece. What we can easily derive is that what drives these men has very little in common with the values and ideologies behind the original space race between The United States and The former Soviet Union.
The original space race was about many things but none more so than an affirmation of superiority over the other. Superiority in the space race meant, symbolically, superiority as a culture. Why does this matter? Culture, it can be argued from an existential perspective, is fundamentally religious in nature in that it provides us all with a mechanism be become ‘heroic’ and belong. Culture, whether the so called ‘primitive cultures’ of the world through to the now globally dominant Western culture all have three things in common : a story of how we got here, rules on how to behave whilst we are here and lastly, and perhaps most importantly, a story of what happens after we die. This is ostensibly why ever war ever fought is a war of one culture against another or, put more purely, one religion against another whether Christianity versus Islam or Communism versus Capitalism (or Freedom, as the Americans like to call it).
Bezos, Branson and Musk all share the reality that they have immense and almost infinite wealth. However, whilst this wealth is currently propelling them towards space like modern day space cowboys (a reference to Bezos’ cowboy hat attire after his space trip), they share something even more concrete than their wealth and it is something they share with the rest of us: no matter how wealthy, they are hurtling towards their own finitude (death) just like the rest of us and this renders them anxious.
Existentialists have long argued that to feel anxious is to be human; that our very being is defined by a knowing anxiety as we are, as far as we can discern, the only species on the planet who has such a profound awareness of our being that we also know we are going to die. This is unbearable for us and so we invent ways in which to stave off death anxiety – back to the raison d’être of culture.
Bezos, Branson and Musk all live on the same planet as the rest of us mere (financial) mortals – a planet that is reaching its limits on almost every level: we are fast running out of space, clean air, clean water and temperature ranges that provide liveable conditions for us and our animal cousins.
However, to engage with this is deeply anxiety provoking, not just for billionaires but for all of us and to contemplate the planet’s finitude is to be reminded of our own finitude.
A flight from death
Imagine how much good could be done with the combined wealth of these three individuals on this planet: third world debt could be resolved, huge investment created in renewables, diseases eradicated and so on. However to do this it would mean living within the constraints of reality – within the context of finitude. It would mean that each of these men would have to accept that despite their billions, they are mere mortals who are going to die.
A manic defence is a process (unconscious) that humans employ to distract themselves from uncomfortable truths, thoughts and feelings. It is, if you wish, the polar opposite of depression, where one is consumed by negative thoughts and feelings and nothing possible can be accessed.
It is a normal developmental process for infants to pass from a state of denial and splitting to the depressive position whereby reality, with all its disappointments, can be tolerated – not the same as clinical depression.
Whilst the latest wave of space travel is couched as progressive and future orientated by each of these billionaires, in reality what seems to be emerging is simply an expensive and highly polluting contest from see whom has the biggest ego (or other appendage if one is to reference the phallic shape of Bezos’ rocket ship). And what are they offering the world? The ‘opportunity’ for others who are wealthy, but slightly less so, to invest in this egotistical immortality project by becoming ‘space tourists’.
The little boy in me dreamt of space and the idea of being a space tourist. I now am firmly (and uncomfortably) rooted in the reality in accepting my own finitude and that of the planet we all share. Perhaps if the three protagonists in question had spent just a little of their fortune on a curiosity in exploring their inner ‘space’, they would be more able to tolerate actual reality themselves and rather than resorting to mania to defend against existential angst, find culturally heroic ways of making a difference and leaving their mark.
Mark Vahrmeyer, UKCP Registered, BHP Co-founder is an integrative psychotherapist with a wide range of clinical experience from both the public and private sectors. He currently sees both individuals and couples, primarily for ongoing psychotherapy. Mark is available at the Lewes and Brighton & Hove Practices.
Further reading by Mark Vahrmeyer