This year Pope Francis washed the feet of women, the disabled, prisoners, and non-Catholics. A symbolic and archaic act to be sure, but no less radical now than it was 2,000 years ago. To wash someone's feet is to submit yourself before them; to say that you are no more important than they are. I am not a Catholic, but this act of humility speaks to me; it inspires me.
I spent the past week in Las Vegas at a trade show. I saw many acts of kindness, friendship, and even love. Trade shows can be such an exciting time as friends and business associates across an industry gather together for what may be the only time each year. But trade shows are also a microcosm of the world we live in, and if you are aware, you will see many instances of jockeying for power and position.
The most obvious is the behavior with service people. Sure, if you were gentry in the Victorian era, it would have been considered untoward to be thanking and greeting your 'staff'. But seriously? We don't have royal or noble classes in America, and those Victorian rules don't apply. So when I see people treating service staff as if they are invisible, it makes me cringe. These people aren't serving us because they owe it to us, they are serving us because they need a job and the hotel/restaurant is providing an experience. Plus, it would be disruptive if all of us were running to the kitchen for glasses and flatware. Not only do guests in these environments fail to say please and thank you, many of them speak to service staff with disdain and disrespect. What, they didn't anticipate your need for more ice in your water or fetch you a new fork fast enough? Put on your big girl panties and ask nicely.
I have also grown weary of the false power paradigms in place in business settings. The boss power paradigm I won't even go into here (though my friends are encouraging me to write a book entitled "How to be a Boss Without Being an AssHat"). The Buyer Power Paradigm is the one we see in abundance at trade shows. Ah, the buyer, the person who holds the purse strings. He knows he has power and the vendor does too. The truth is, the buyer needs the vendor and the vendor needs the buyer. That sounds pretty equal to me. But purse strings mean a lot in our society, and that simple truth plays out in the most basic of our interactions.
And of course in many industries (particularly small ones) the adults also form and protect hierarchies. Isn't there always a cool group, an in-clique? It looks a lot like high school, when our teenage brains were still a hot mess of hormones and social confusion. Sorting people into castes creates a sense of order to the chaotic adolescent mind. But, at least theoretically, we're all adults now and we've sorted out that we're all people with gifts differing but value the same.
We continue to be part of a world in which women and people of color are paid less than white men, in which people of various religions hold that their own religions are better than the religions of others, in which brown boys suffer dramatically shorter lifespans than all other boys, in which children of poverty aren't even aware of the opportunities that children of the middle class take for granted. Most of the people reading this blog post have the vantage of looking at all that tragedy as outside themselves. But is it? Or is it part of a much larger problem? Isn't that behavior just part of a world in which people feel more important than their servers, discount others who think or believe different things than they themselves believe, or even look down on someone for her fashion choices and body type?
The truest truth is that none of us is more important than another. The saddest truth is that philosophers and prophets have been saying the same thing since time immemorial and yet the compulsion to elevate ourselves at the expense of others seems to have a biological grip. And maybe it is biological, but if it is, it's no more valid in these modern days than an appendix or a gall bladder.
There is a Buddhist belief that we must try to see the face of God in everyone we meet. Perhaps we should also try to see our own face in everyone we meet. The ability to see someone else as "other than" is the ability to see ourselves as "better than." And crazy optimist that I am, I do believe we are all capable of being better than that.