Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time in airports. Partially because I’ve done a bit of traveling, but even more so because I am fairly convinced that I have somehow been cursed with the worst traveler’s luck of all time. It’s become a bit of a running joke in my family that if there is a multi-hour delay, a broken navigation system, or an emergency landing, chances are, I am on the flight. It would be very reasonable to assume that I carry a bitterness toward my agency of distress, but on the contrary, a deep fondness for airports has made a home and settled in my heart.
It’s true that I love how I can drink a beer at 11:00 am without any judgmental looks or take a nap on a dirty, heavily walked floor and still be relatively operating within social norms. But my affinity toward airports comes from the fact that they are the ultimate microcosm of what it means to be truly Human. Every person in an airport is on a journey – some for work, some for pleasure, some for familial obligations, but a journey, nonetheless. Our journeys are all unique but for a brief moment in time, we get to coexist while waiting to reach our next destination and just simply be. It’s rare and it’s beautifully human.
Most recently, I found myself in the ever-familiar Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport waiting for my – wouldn’t you know it – delayed flight to board. As many weary travelers often do, I sought out to find a bar to kill some time. I ordered an $18 glass of wine, settled into my two-person table, and placed my backpack, dubbed “hippie stuff” by my server, in the chair in front of me. I sipped my Syrah, that was slightly tainted by the taste of capitalism, and let my mind wander to the places it wanted to go.
As my mind often does, it took me to the place we have been frequenting the last few years – the deconstruction of the messages I’ve internalized from the universal church. I circled back to a revelation that I came to after a particularly challenging therapy session a few months ago: throughout all of my years within the thralls of evangelicalism, I was simultaneously fed a sense of both complete worthlessness and over-importance. I was given the message that while I was totally depraved garbage without Jesus, I was also a gatekeeper of the most important and urgent message in the world. I was told that I was plagued by original sin, but also that the salvation of the world was quite literally my burden to carry.
How does one form a healthy sense of self when you are given contradictory messages about your identity from a pre-pubescent age? The short answer is that you don’t.
These covert messages from the church that have been deeply woven into my personhood show themselves in ways that are hard to combat. I often worry that I can’t reveal too much of myself to anyone with the fear that somehow my personal shortcomings and existential crises will throw them off their own axis. I have this confused narcissistic idea that my anxieties and doubts will hold equal weight with other people and that I must protect them from myself. I hide myself because I have an internalized sense of over-importance. On the other hand, I will also keep large parts of myself hidden away due to my worries that I will be dismissed and invalidated because what I experience is deemed illegitimate. By keeping my vulnerabilities concealed, I wouldn’t have to face how unimportant and irrelevant they are to others. I also hide myself because I have an internalized sense of worthlessness.
As I was pondering my months-old revelation, a woman dressed in a seemingly expensive pencil skirt suit and red-bottomed stilettos sat down at the two-person table only 3 feet from mine. We smiled politely and I suddenly found myself feeling deeply insecure about my backpacker-looking attire, “hippie stuff”, and my clearly evident aloneness. Soon thereafter, this woman leaned over, asked what I was drinking, and told our server that she would have what I was having. We did not speak again, not even as I quietly cried to myself looking at photos of a too-beautiful-for-words glacier somewhere in New Zealand, but in that moment, I realized that she and I truly aren’t much different. She, too, was a solo traveler looking to kill time with a glass of wine, and maybe even ruminating on her very own personal revelations.
There’s no place quite like an airport to establish an equal playing field. I’ve napped on the floor in Dubai next to businessmen who are likely far more powerful than myself. I’ve sprinted to my gate in Las Vegas with an optometrist who felt like my comrade. I’ve stretched out my traveler muscles via downward dog in Istanbul next to a family of five all dressed in their traditional garb. And once I even shared a bed with a perfect stranger that I met in the El Paso airport when our plane had to make an emergency landing close to midnight.
All bets are off, and anything goes in airports. The beauty of it is that we all just seem to give one another the benefit of the doubt, pay no mind to the differences that separate us, and accept each other for who we are. There is no need to feel an obligation to hide parts of myself due to feelings of over-importance or complete worthlessness. There’s no sense in feeling like I need to protect other people from myself or keep my self-preservation walls erected tall and strong. I get to be anonymous knowing that not one person around me cares about what I’m wearing, what I believe, or even what I used to believe. Not because I am worthless, but because I simply just get to be a fellow Human. This may sound depressing, but conversely, it feels beautifully liberating.
The last few years, my greatest challenge has been constructing an identity that comes from me alone and learning how to simply be okay with myself. Sitting at that table in the Phoenix airport, lost in my own deconstruction-centered thoughts, while being sufficiently ripped off, I experienced a small taste of that. I was all alone, wearing clothes that I feel the most Myself in, drinking wine, enjoying my very own company, and simply just being.
Perhaps our everyday world should begin to adopt some of the airport culture I have grown so fond of. A place where no one is too important that their beingness throws off everyone else’s stability, while still being a meaningful and worthy contribution to the overall environment. I hope that one day in my real life, I will feel as utterly shameless and empowered as I did while publicly brushing my hair at a gate in Beijing. We are all on a journey of our own, trying to be okay with ourselves, and get where we’re going. And isn’t that the crux of the human experience?