On Urgency and Elevator Buttons

“a world of made is not a world of born.”—e.e. cummings, “pity this busy monster, manunkind”

Want to hear something really depressing? elevatorThose buttons in an elevator that say “CLOSE DOOR” almost never really close the door. In most situations they aren’t even active because the doors are controlled by automatic settings; they are just there to make you think you are doing something. Same with most of the buttons at crosswalks that you push to make the light turn green. They don’t control the light. They just make you feel better.

These are examples of placebo buttons, or mechanisms that manufacturers build into their devices to manage one of the really annoying little quirks of the human species: we are spectacularly bad at telling the difference between “doing something” and “doing something that matters.”

We even fall for this when we know that it doesn’t matter. The next time you are in a tall building with an elevator bank, count how many times you push the elevator call button. You know perfectly well that you only need to push it once. But if the elevator doesn’t come, you will push it again and again. You know that it isn’t helping the situation, but you push it anyway because it is the only thing to do, and you have to do something.

This sort of thing happens all over. About half of the meetings that I go to at work—and two thirds of the reports that I write—have no effect whatsoever on any problem that I am actually trying to solve. This is placebo work—things that I can point to when somebody asks me what I am doing about X. “Nothing” is never the right answer to such a question. “I had a meeting about it” almost always works. And “I just wrote this report” never fails—especially if there is a PowerPoint.

This can happen in our religious lives too. The tendency to engage in furious activity and call it meaningful work is the subject of Hugh Nibly’s indispensable essay, “Zeal without Knowledge,” in which he writes:

Zeal is the engine that drives the whole vehicle: without it we would get nowhere. But without clutch, throttle, brakes, and steering wheel, our mighty engine becomes an instrument of destruction, and the more powerful the motor, the more disastrous the inevitable crack-up if the proper knowledge is lacking. There is a natural tendency to let the mighty motor carry us along, to give it its head, to open it up and see what it can do. We see this in our society today. . . .  We have the zeal but not the knowledge, so to speak. And this the Prophet Joseph considered a very dangerous situation in the Church.

When I read the Doctrine & Covenants or the records of the first Latter-day Saints, I am amazed by their sense of urgency. It is an urgency born of a very specific vision: they believed that they were living through the greatest events in the history of history, that Zion had to be built, and that they were the only ones in the world who could do the building. They felt their responsibility keenly, and they worked with an urgency born of a vision.

This is also the urgency that Christ speaks of in the Kingdom Parables when he says, “The kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field (Matthew 13: 44). What Jesus tells us is that we will simply not be able to stand still when we finally catch the vision—when we really understand that the Kingdom of God is within us, that it is possible, and that we can do things right now to create it.

But we must recognize the crucial difference between “doing” and “getting done.” Hyperactivity is not the same thing as productive work. We can be busy every moment of our lives without actually doing anything. We can coordinate and correlate and go to meetings all of the time and produce glossy reports and PowerPoint presentations without actually having an impact on anything. And we can beat ourselves up with feelings of guilt and shame because we aren’t doing everything that some checklist or manual tells us we should be doing without ever having a meaningful impact on somebody else’s life.

The Kingdom of God is a vision not a task list. Until we have the vision, all we can do is push a lot of buttons and pretend that we are having an effect on the door.


  1. That…was life-changing. Thank you.

  2. And FWIW, most “close door” buttons are not actually placebo. They really work. See the full discussion on your link, above.

  3. So tell me more about this vision of the Kingdom of God thing and how it changes us. Does this relate to putting our efforts into becoming instead of into doing? Like Uchtdorf’s story of the Potemkin villages that look well run but are just a facade?

  4. bt109: Good call. I revised the passage to reflect this. But I still think that the overall point holds.

  5. Great post! I had to laugh a little because I recently spent 15 to 20 hours preparing our new stake family history plan. The plan, of course, was taught though a power point presentation.

    So this post resonated with me. I feel good about my presentation and the work I put into it. I felt inspired to do it and I was just trying to do my best. But, if I didn’t successfully impart a vision, it was probably a waste of time.

  6. This is something very important to realize. It reminds me of President Uchtdorf’s talk “of things that matter most”. I’ve been trying to teach it to my ward but there are so many cultural factors pushing the other way not just in the church but in american culture.

  7. Yes, busy-ness is perceived as a hallmark of success; in Church culture and the business world, this translates into officiousness meant to convey competence.

  8. It is times like these when I wish the posts written here were read in GC. I spent years believing my zeal was legit. Now I am wondering if I was the village facade. I am still piecing the recovery together at the same time yearning for a vision that is real where I can spend my zeal. If anyone gets the vision let me know.

  9. Kristine A: If I read the Kingdom Parables correctly, it goes something like this:

    The wrong way to look at the Kingdom of God is to see it as something distant and otherworldly. It is not something that happens in the afterlife, it is something that can happen right here, right now. But to get there, we all have to decide to live differently with each other. We have to take what the New Testament says about loving, compassion, and forgiveness seriously, and we have to intentionally work to create an environment–a family, a ward, a community, etc.–where people love, trust, and forgive each other enough to overcome the elements of human nature that make Zion impossible.

    Once we really understand that such a world is possible–and I mean really understand it deep in our entrails–we will be willing to give up everything else to produce it. This means that we will give up economic advancement, worldly status, our tribal natures, our suspicions, and all the rest of the things that prevent us from creating, and living in, the world.

    I am certainly not there. I understand it intellectually, but I am not ready to sell everything that I have and move wherever it takes to make this happen. My life is too comfortable, and highly comfortable is the great enemy of genuinely happy. But, as I read the letters and journals of the first generation of Later-day Saints–in Kirtland, Missouri, Nauvoo, and the Great Basin, they did have this vision–they were willing to sacrifice everything that was not Zion in order to build Zion.

    It is really an inspiring vision, that, I think, we often preserve in the Church in the form of furious activity only. Vision is optional and not really desirable, since it absolutely requires sacrificing everything but the one thing we are seeking.

  10. Sometimes I wonder if we’ll be asked to live a higher law . . . but perhaps that’s the point of the challenge these days: we’ve got to create it from our own free agency. That we’ve got to act instead of be acted upon.

  11. I think we are asked to live a higher law. We still enter into a covenant to live the law of consecration.

    You hit the nail on the head though. The trick is how to live that law using our own free agency. We are not asked to move to Utah anymore. So the question is, what do we need to do to consecrate our own lives?

  12. Michael, the problem I see is that the New Testament Vision isn’t matching the Top Down Vision much. And it looks like if I just wander out into my own vision of the Vision, I could get my legs cut out from under me. Utopia has always looked lovely. Reality has never lived to Utopia. Even Camelot died.

    It’s an inspiring piece, one I wish we could keep sharing and make as an LDS platform, but I sense it will become dandelion dust before it ever gets a chance. I wish it was different. I do love it’s potential.

  13. “Michael, the problem I see is that the New Testament Vision isn’t matching the Top Down Vision much.”

    Yep, that is the problem all right. Blogging is easy, but it doesn’t usually change much. Unfortunately, it’s all I got. Well, blogging and trying to make a tiny little difference in my own ward and with my own set of acquaintances.

    And I think that Kristine and Mark are both absolutely correct that this has to be something that we do with our own agency. By definition, we can’t obey our way there. If we catch it, the vision will compel us forward without anybody giving orders. If we don’t catch it, no amount of obedience to an authority is going to catch it for us.

  14. Thanks Michael for letting me push the buttons a bit more. I agree that we have agency. I just think I am worn out. I have been at this process longer than my soul has energy. I have tried not to make war, but to bring love and maybe some hope, but everyone is pretty happy where they are and my well has dried up. It looks likes it time to consider taking the vision elsewhere. I only get one earth life. It’s a great piece – where ever it goes.

  15. Cat, all I’ve got here are virtual hugs and good wishes. I get what you are saying. There is only so much banging-our-head-against-the-wall that any of us can do before deciding to try a softer wall. Wherever you go, God will be there. And probably a link to BCC as well.

  16. “And probably a link to BCC as well.”

    That some awesome SEO you got going there.

  17. Thought-provoking. Thanks, Michael.

  18. Aaron Brown says:

    But what about if you’re the stake Sunday school president and even catching the vision is pointless because your calling doesn’t actually do anything? Should you abandon both zeal and knowledge and just sleep in?

  19. Aaron, one can sleep with zeal. Trust me.

  20. the graph shows that although the doors didn’t open faster, they appeared to…is that appearance important? If it effects our perception does it matter?

    in other news, having had elevator door buttons banged and pushed and pushed hard in desperation because you have just given birth in an elevator between the first and second floor…this post is different for me. time is far more about perception than it is about some fraction of space related to the sun or earth. IME the distance between the first and second floor depends far more on what is happening in the elevator and what you need to have happen on the next floor, then the actual “time” in the elevator. that perception effects your experience dramatically.

    If the perception is that it helped and you got somewhere faster based on your actions, does it then become easier to go on in a proactive manner? EVEN if reality is that there was no affect? Thinking we are doing something perpetuates the desire and ability to do something. A body in motion, stays in motion…physics.

    Even if you are dealing with functioning elevator buttons, if your perception of time in the elevator is warped by your experience in the elevator…it matters.

    What if we write a blog post. What if only two people read it. One is comforted by what you wrote and feels supported and uplifted. The other is…bored and takes nothing from the post. Perhaps the post didn’t immediately influence the change of policies or procedures or general attitudes. For the former person though…it made a difference. For the latter it was pointless.

    perception matters.

  21. I’m not saying business is the same as effectness…we need not “fight as one that beateth the air:” It’s just that I’m a mom. My life is a constant reminder that small and simple things are frequently very very powerful, while grand gestures can be meaningless.

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