Stuck Between Levels

The only time I’ve been stuck in an elevator, it was more an inconvenience than a catastrophe. A long time ago, in order to finalize a preliminary job offer, I needed to complete some personnel paperwork and then do interviews with two potential supervisors. The personnel office and these supervisors were in the same three-story building—personnel on the first floor, supervisors on the second.  As I completed the needed personnel forms, I noticed that it was almost time for my interviews. Rather than try to find the stairs, I took the elevator I’d passed in the main lobby on my way in. I was the only passenger. 

The elevator got halfway to the second floor and then stopped. I could see the upper floor through a ceiling gap above my head, but had no way to get out of the elevator to reach it. I pushed various control panel buttons to get the elevator unstuck, but nothing worked. I tried not to panic—even if the elevator crashed to the basement, I’d probably survive with only minor injuries. If I didn’t get the job, I could keep on looking—I was well qualified and had gotten a good score on the relevant civil service exam. Something else was bound to open up if this position didn’t pan out. 

After a couple more iterations of futile button pushing, I finally hit the “send help” switch. In a few minutes, a repair technician appeared and solved the problem. Though I was a little late for the first interview, the supervisor was aware of the crankiness of the elevator, having recently gotten stuck himself.  He made light of the incident. I got the job. Exiting the second interview, I found the stairway for subsequent trips. 

Lately it can seem hard to work our way out of the various global difficulties we humans have gotten ourselves into—a viral pandemic, nuclear and conventional arms races, air and water pollution, food insecurity, mass migrations, erratic weather, warming oceans, deforestation, income and wealth inequality. Our problems are sometimes exacerbated by distorted and distorting social media. We can often seem stuck. 

I’ve been exposed to many models that use the notion of levels to describe natural and/or human phenomena. One basic model,  the theory of evolution, describes how simple one-celled creatures have, over long timespans, spawned more and more complex life. On a human scale, models include Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. At the organizational level, a Capability Maturity Model Integration (CMMI) provides practices for organizational development and process improvement. These models make implicit assumptions that a shift to the “next level” is worthwhile and likely to persist. Left implicit, too, are the chaos and discomfort that can accompany a shift of levels, especially for us humans when the systems are human-based. 

On any given day, I may run up against recent level turmoil in burgeoning communications technologies—land-line phone, mobile phone, text messaging, internet messaging, social media—which mode suits for a particular task or contact? How do I reach others whose communication modes are more limited than mine—maybe by using postal mail or through an in-person meeting? Our financial systems are awash in online trades, cryptocurrencies, international clearinghouses, widespread if illegal money laundering schemes. Trying to get a broader view, I can find it amazing that our highly diverse global society functions at all. Controversies break out ranging from local school boards to the World Health Organization. 

When I was in school, teachers sometimes reminded me of a quote by scientist Albert Einstein: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Many of the difficulties we find ourselves in are, I believe, symptoms of ongoing level shifts. We’re undergoing both a shift in our kind of thinking and a shift in social systems we’ve created that no longer work very well, if they ever did. 

Perhaps the best we can do is avoid panic, diminish our need to be totally in control, learn when to hit the “send help” switch, and function as better repair technicians for the pieces of systems we know most thoroughly. 

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