“a world of made is not a world of born.”—e.e. cummings, “pity this busy monster, manunkind”
Want to hear something really depressing? Those 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.