How Airports Make Us Better (and Happier) People
Airports are stressful. They’re simultaneously cramped and cavernous, usually full of people who are overwhelmed, exhausted, anxious, and emotional. They’re places where confusion is common, interacting with strangers is unavoidable, and though everyone’s hoping to be somewhere else, for now, they’re here, using the outlets, grumbling in long lines for overpriced coffee, and laying around the gates in uncomfortable heaps.
It doesn’t have to be the airport. There are many places and experiences that expose us to accidents, discomfort, shame, pain, cultural and expectational collisions. But for me, the airport is the sweet spot.
For some, having an excuse (like a global pandemic) to avoid the generally negative experience of airports might be a good thing. Surely the prolific use of private air travel amongst the wealthy is evidence that as soon as most people can afford not to fly commercial, they are more than willing to pay to avoid it.
But what people who opt out of long security lines, eternally changing gates, and pricey in-flight food will never understand is how important it is, to us as people, to get the chance to have negative experiences in public.
To understand public suffering, it’s important to think about what it feels like to have negative experiences that are relatively private.
When we get in trouble at work, someone cuts us off, or a stranger (or friend) snaps at us, those feelings often turn inward. Our isolation in our sense of hurt allows us to feel like a victim of a personal injustice, unfairly attacked because of something accidental or beyond our control, or worse, because of a mistake on the attackers part. That victimhood can easily morph into self-righteous anger and a need to fight back, an unconscious recognition that others should suffer because we suffer, because that would make the whole situation more fair. We lash out, because hurt people hurt people, and the cycle continues.
But the thing about being on a flight with a crying baby, languishing on a plastic seat for hours waiting for a delayed plane, or covertly covering your nose to stave off the nauseating scent of your seat-mates homemade cuisine, is that you are confronted immediately and irrefutably with the fact that you are not suffering alone in any of these situations.
It’s incredibly humbling to come face-to-face with the fact that bad things in the world aren’t happening to you because you’re a victim or an underdog. Bad things just happen in the world. To everyone. And rather than fight back and make things worse for others, when we see and recognize that in some situations, everyone is suffering, it’s much easier to sit back, come to terms with the difficulty, and not make it worse for those around you.
That’s what the airport (and the DMV, and many other real and virtual spaces) does for us. It’s the anti-Instagram. A place where we share with strangers how messy, mediocre, boring, inconvenient, and even painful life can be, and not through a screen, but sitting shoulder to shoulder.
Sometimes we react gracefully to the mess, by finding tenderness for the overworked airline employee who’s been tasked with helping you track down your lost bag or offering a “no problem” to the apologetic parent whose child just can’t stop kicking the back of your seat. Sometime we snap — we yell after the guy who bumped into us while he was running to his gate, or we unplug our headphones and play our music out loud to annoy the business-guy taking a very long and very loud phone call in the gate area.
Sometimes we add to the mess, sometimes we get a chance to rise above, and sometime in adding to the mess, we give someone else the chance to rise above. That’s in incredibly precious gift to give and receive and though in the moment (and frankly, upon reflection) airports make for pretty rotten experiences, they are all very human experiences, ones we’ve striven to eliminate from the rest of our lives. Even before COVID-19, the rise and proliferation of delivery services of every kind have allowed more and more people to eliminate not-always-positive experiences like shopping, driving, and eating at restaurants from their lives.
But it seems to me that those human experiences are the kind of vegetables of social health. Are they always pleasant. No. But are they really important to keeping us regular and healthy. Yes.
In a world where every perfectly manicured social media account reminds us that good things happen in public to everyone else and bad things happen in private and only to me, the airport is a monument to the idea that bad things happen everywhere, to everyone, and the only way to get through them is with a little patience, a lot of grace, and becoming one with the unavoidable truth that This Isn’t About You. It’s about all of us.