Sometimes when you are travelling, things that have been so familiar; things about ‘home’ that are so much a part of the everyday scenery that they have become unremarkable, suddenly gain new meaning.
I recently returned to the States from my trip to South Africa. Travel these days, especially international travel, is far from simple. There are gates to find, signs to decode, schedules to keep. You practically need an advanced degree in problem solving to get yourself from A to B.
To board a plane in Africa headed for America, you must navigate an additional layer of security. Once you’ve passed the standard security checkpoint where they scan your bags and check out your shoes and you think you’re on your way – just before you get on the plane right at the gate, officials descend and set up another check.
Men and women are separated into two lines. As someone headed to America, you get the unenviable experience of being rather intimately handled from head to toe and all your bags opened and rifled. Let me tell you, once you’ve had your delicate unmentionables waved about for all to evaluate, you suddenly feel a deep bond with your fellow travelers, as they suffer the same fate.
Having survived the manhandling at the gate and being allowed on the plane, we landed at Dulles International Airport. We’d been packed on the plane with other transatlantic travelers for over 19 hours. Everyone was a little woozy, uncertain what time it was, and super ready to get as far away from airplane food as possible. Most of us weren’t at our final destination and there were some tight connections to catch. Yet it was when we hit the security checkpoint that I suddenly knew I was home.
Love and the TSA
One of the favorite scapegoats for travel difficulties is the added layer of the Transportation Security Administration. Everyone loves the TSA, right? The agency that, while dedicated to reducing terrorism and making travel safer, seems to thrive on hassling hapless travelers. We’ve all got our favorite embarrassing TSA stories.
Nestled deep in the bowels of Dulles airport, I was back on familiar territory inside a culture that I understood. We’d been through customs, we’d waited patiently to collect our bags and re-check them to our final destinations. We’d been sniffed by drug-hunting dogs. As we stood in the extra long security checkpoint queue, it happened.
Another TSA agent joined the team. With a brief announcement, the agent opened another scanner. He encouraged people to join the new line. He asked for those with tight connections to come on up. He joked with the passengers and assured them they were there to help get them on their way as efficiently as possible.
Here was an official working with us. No power plays, no silent messages that needed attention, no using the “rules” to prove a point. The agent provided the focus we – confused, weary, and giddy travelers – needed. Suddenly it was clear that the folks working the security protocol were dedicated to helping. They were in this, too. They were helping us reach our goal.
Once we’d landed in Boston we collected our bags (most of them) and filed our missing bag report for the one that was lost. We headed out to catch the ferry that takes us from the airport to the town where we live.
As we were getting off the ferry, juggling bags up the gangway, it happened again. A woman who was getting off at the same stop asked if she could help. Just that. She’d seen the waves were creating a little extra drama as they tossed us about with our awkward loads, and offered to pitch in to help us off the ferry. To help us reach our goal.
The Biggest Question
About a week later, it all came home when I attended a monthly meeting of social entrepreneurs. This group has a membership of over 2,000 entrepreneurs and the monthly meetings are regularly attended by about 45 members. Everyone here has a cause, business, or purpose about which they are passionate. During the early part of the meeting, the host gathers peoples’ questions for the group to address. Questions at the meetings run the gamut from how to solve a particular business problem, to requests for recommendations, to strategic evaluations of next steps.
As we settled into the meeting, our host reviewed three questions. Heady questions that concerned the place of entrepreneurs in shaping the economy and successful start-up fundraising campaigns.
But it was the third question that made me sit up and take note. Someone had submitted to the group a simple straightforward question. They wanted to know how the people in the group could help each other. Help each other develop their businesses, help each other create impact, help each other to reach their goals. How could they help?
There really is no place like home
As I work with nonprofits, I consider myself blessed to interact every day with people who are dedicated to helping. That is an essential part of the nonprofit sector’s culture. Yet if I look around me, and pay attention, I see people helping each other as an unspoken, accepted mainstay of the culture in the U.S. Maybe that’s part of what makes people think of Americans as being some of the most generous; the willingness to help.
How funny to go half-way around the world and back again to recognize what is right in front of me.
What are the cultural mainstays that you rely upon? Are there those that are so much a part of your environment that you don’t notice them any more?