I was about to board a flight back home to South Africa after my second year in California. All of the passengers were lined up outside the gate, including myself, passports and tickets in hands, waiting to go through the final security check before boarding the plane.
Having gone through this same procedure plenty of times before, I expected to simply hand the flight attendant my ticket and passport and then step onto the plane. However, as I approached her I noticed something odd. She was stopping all passengers with ‘too much’ hand luggage and yelling at them, forcing them downsize their carry on items.
I looked down at my own luggage: I had two years worth of ‘stuff’ that I was trying to get home. As a result I was carrying an over-stuffed carry on suitcase (it was bulging quite dramatically – I later couldn’t even squeeze it into the overhead compartment), two plastic bags filled with shoes, clothes, food for the trip, gifts for my family, as well as a giant handbag and two jackets hanging over my arm. I was the smallest person in the line with the most amount of luggage. (I blame the airport for putting duty-free shops right next to the boarding gates, and after check-in where the luggage is weighed. It is their own fault, really.)
I looked ahead at the dismal scene as a Brazilian man two places ahead of me was told to “Step aside” to the ‘group of shame’ – the group of people who were not allowed to progress to the plane because of their excess hand luggage. The flight attendant (who was a rather tall, large and intimidating looking woman) then began to shout at the passengers as they protested against their treatment and threatened to not let them on the plane.
Suddenly, it was my turn.
I stepped up.
She looked at me and asked to see my ticket.
I said a silent prayer, and then gave her a big friendly smile as I handed her my ticket and passport and asked her how she was doing.
She told me she was having a tough day.
I smiled sympathetically and told her what a great job she was doing (even though I was shaking in my boots).
She stared at my passport and back at me, then back at my passport again…
Then she looked up at me, smiled at me, said “Here you are sweetheart. Have a safe trip back home.”
She winked at me.
So I said “thank you” and hurried toward the gate before she could change her mind.
Behind me I heard her say to the others “It’s okay, you can all go on now. Don’t worry about it.” And they made their way onto the plane with the huffy puffy sounds that annoyed people make.
I remember thinking “What just happened?”. Why had she let me through and treated me differently?
From my own experiences, I have observed that when people feel valued, honoured and loved they act completely differently than when they are not feeling valued, honoured and loved.
Now, I don’t know if this lady was simply just having a bad day and taking it out on the people around her, and I don’t know if it was in fact me who had any influence on her sudden change of mood that day. But I do know that when I smiled at her and genuinely asked after how she was (because I really did care), her expression softened and she let me through despite the very evident fact that I was the worst offender there when it came to the luggage story.
Not only that, but she also then forgave the offences of the other passengers and let them through.
Studies in social psychology have shown that a single smile from a stranger can change someones average or terrible day into a good day. Scientifically it has something to do with the endorphins that are released when you smile back, but from a social point of view it has to do with worth and value. There is something about a smile and a kind word or compliment that says “You are worthy of my time. You have value.”
Studies have also shown that when someone receives something like a smile or compliment from a stranger, they are more likely to smile or compliment another stranger, thus creating a ripple effect. Now, I know you’re probably thinking “Okay, so this chick just wants us to smile all the time and tell people they look good when they don’t….”
No. That is not what I am saying at all.
What I am saying is that every action has an effect.
Whether we like it or not, what we do or don’t do does in fact have a direct impact on the people around us, be it friends, family or perfect strangers.
In a culture where we are influenced by ‘reality shows’ and sitcoms where the social interaction depicts the tearing down of one another, it doesn’t take a brainiac to figure out why so many people are self destructive, and therefore destructive to those around them.
I have encountered so many people who feel ‘trapped’ and too terrified to be themselves for fear of being torn down or judged. So they harden themselves or try change themselves as a protection mechanism.
In world where we fight for freedom, don’t you find this somewhat ironic? We fight for our freedom, yet we choose a culture where we don’t feel free in ourselves.
When Ghandi said that we need to be the change that we want to see in the world, I believe that he meant this: That our every action has an effect on others.
So we must first decide what kind of world we would like to live in. Then realise how we would act and interact within that world, and the person we would be in it. And then live accordingly.
Because how we live does and will affect those around us.
When I was living in Redding California, it was common to go to a Starbucks drive-through and order a coffee, only to find out when you reached the pay window that the person before you had already payed for your drink. The common reaction to this was “Oh okay, well I’ll just pay for the next person’s drink then…”. And so would start a chain reaction that would sometimes last all day.
I dont know about you, but that is the sort of world I would like to live in.
The sort of world where we give more than we take.
Where we constantly uplift, encourage and see the best in others.
Where people are not afraid to be themselves, but rather blossom and make the world all the richer for it.
The sort of world where our actions come from a place of love, and everyone around us will feel it and benefit from it.
THAT is the world I would like to live in, and the person I would like to be.
I want every person that I encounter to feel valued and worthy, honoured and loved. I want to be the sort of person that people can feel safe to be themselves around, and feel empowered when they are with me. My hope is that each person in turn will do the same, and a new culture will develop… one where we can all be truly free.
So what is the world you would like, and who will you be in it? It only takes one person to change your world and your culture, and it starts with your conscious decision to live it out.
Be the person you want to be, and you will see that change. And maybe one day soon we will see a major change in the world…
It is so easy and so possible.
So GO! And be that change. Even if it is just a smile at a stranger. You never know how far that smile will go.