Last week, when visiting my family in Pennsylvania, my journey included time spent in four different airports: JAX, CLT, ATL, and PIT. I have been using air travel for my entire life, so I know the airport drill: move quickly, don’t do anything stupid, listen to announcements, and stay in line. Because the airport is the airport, I’ve rarely questioned airport policies and procedures. If anything, I’ve understood that the stakes at the airport are too high for the atmosphere to be chaotic: there are endless threats to security, thousands of people needing to be herded, and strict plane schedules that create a domino effect around the world.
Last week, however, I noticed how Matrix-like the airport felt. The whole place operated based on categorization and hierarchy! From the moment I walked into the security area, I noticed the ways we became distinct:
- Split #1: TSA Pre-Screen versus regular security: The Pre-Screen people didn’t have to take their clothes off, put their laptop in a separate bag, or go through the intimidating metal machine. Their line only had a few people in it at any given moment.
- Split #2: Boarding zones: This one really felt ridiculous to me when I zoomed out and observed it. On the way to Pennsylvania I flew Southwest, so we organized ourselves into letter/number categories. Those of us lucky enough to get on at the beginning claimed our window seats, while the people at the end of the line scowled their way to their inevitable middle seat. When I flew American on the way back, the boarding zones went up to Zone 9. These seats were assigned, so the boarding process is mostly irrelevant, but we lined up based on a number anyways.
- Split #3: Boarding lines: Even more ridiculous are the partitions that separate first-class passengers (or Gold Passengers, Sky Royalty, or whatever elitist name they call people who pay tons of money) from the “regular” passengers before they even get on the plane. At one airport, there were three separate carpets side-by-side which people used to get in line to scan their ticket depending on their ticket price.
- Split #4: Seating: Of course, when you board the plane, most of us peasants have to walk through the first class section in order to get to our own seats, undoubtedly noticing how easy it is to saunter through the first-class aisle past the oversized, leather reclining chairs, into our separate sardine-packaged home where we have to angle our bodies just to avoid bumping someone’s elbow.
- Split #5: Recognition: During the “you may now use your laptop” speech, airlines give a “special welcome” to their first class passengers and people who’ve purchased the airline credit card.
Throughout this process of observation, each moment of awareness more glaringly obvious than the next, I realized that hierarchy is everywhere, and more often than not, we are following directions rather than giving them. On an airplane flight, we throw away our garbage, put up the tray tables, and put away our laptops not because those things have anything to do with the plane’s ability to safely land, but because we are told to do so by people who can punish us if we do not.
As I mentioned earlier, this is not always bad; sometimes compliance keeps us safe and helps create order out of chaos. But this experience challenged me to consider where I fit in the hierarchical food chain in most of the spaces I occupy in life. What is the benefit of being a good follower? What am I doing with my status when I’m the one giving directions? How do I ensure the role everyone plays has a purpose?
People with advanced spiritual wisdom will claim that disproportionate power, as well as the ego resulting from that power, do not serve our higher being. Dividing ourselves based on status, wealth, (ticket prices…), and titles distracts us from the point: all 140 of us are trying to get on a plane so we can go somewhere. Is divisiveness the best way to “get there?”
Implied in hierarchy is power. Considering the relationship between these two constructs (typically the higher you are on the hierarchy means higher amounts of power afforded to you), hierarchy itself is not innately bad, nor is power innately bad. It just happens to be a frequent pattern for people that the attainment of power correlates to the practice of abuse of power. This does not always have to be the case. When we gain power, what will we use it for? The padding of our own ego as we walk across a red carpet to first class, or the agency to create more opportunities for connection?
I invite you to look at the ways your settings classify themselves. Who has the power and how is it used? How do we harness positive energy within hierarchical systems to spread positivity, prosperity, and community to all levels of a multi-tiered system? How might people be different in regards to their title, amount of power, and degree of control, but still completely equitable in their perceived inherent value?