There is an iron law of life we rarely think about: when you get on an elevator, you expect to get off of it. It’s a simple, seemingly safe assumption, but an assumption nonetheless, and one that proved to be incorrect for a first-year couple—let’s call them “Brian” and “Evelyn”—who recently found themselves stuck in a Sterling elevator.
March 6th had been a long day for Evelyn and Brian. In fact, so had March 5th, and March 4th, and March 3rd. Both first years are members of the intense Directed Studies program; for days they had been holed up in the library, reading for their Historical & Political Thought class. Though on the surface this night of studying may have seemed like any other, I would be remiss to call March 6th a “regular” night for Brian and Evelyn. The two were not totally sober. They had been struggling with ideas for their H&P essays, and in the spirit of the very authors whose work they were studying, they turned to controlled substances to produce great literary work. Pregaming your Monday night study session with a few shots in Durfee may be more tame than Mary Shelley’s use of opium in writing Frankenstein, but it’s the same idea (right?).
But after a few hours in the Slavic Reading Room, the couple’s essays were not shaping up to be modern Frankensteins. They had become distracted by their friends (who were also a bit drunk), whose initially endearing antics had become positively annoying. The two finally decided to forge a new life in the far more silent Periodical Reading Room. They packed up their things, moseyed on over to the elevator and, without thinking, pushed the elevator button. As they waited for the elevator to arrive, the pair meditated on their past few hours of work (or lack thereof). As they confessed to me later, both wished that they were a little less inebriated. Evelyn had deemed the night a failure—they had made little progress on their essays and were sure to wake up Tuesday morning feeling groggy. But both were determined to turn this night around and get some work done. They stepped onto the elevator with determination, away from their immature peers and towards the hallowed cathedral of knowledge on Sterling’s first floor.
But then tragedy struck. As the two would soon realize, the elevator doors had closed most of the way, but there remained a small gap of just a few inches. The elevator was not moving.
Brian and Evelyn’s first concern was one of physical safety—would the elevator fall? Should they wait a bit longer, or call someone? About two minutes later, the pair decided to push the elevator’s emergency button, and they were met with the voice of a man who worked for Sterling security. He told the pair not to worry and explained that the fire department was on its way. When his voice finally cut out after a deluge of instructions and reassurances, Evelyn and Brian were met with the strangest sound of all: silence. In the fifteen minutes that it would take for the New Haven Fire Department to arrive, Brian and Evelyn were suspended in space-time with absolutely nothing to do. Without too much of a spoiler alert (did they live?), let me offer three lessons for our lives at Yale and beyond.
Doing nothing in the air
Yale students do a lot of things, but “nothing” is rarely one of them. I’ve spoken with many of my classmates about the pressure to optimize our time—the suffocating idea that every action comes with an equal and opposite opportunity cost. I’ve always loved long car and train rides, because there’s no real expectation for me to do anything but daydream and relax. (A minor exception: I’m writing the final part of this article on the Metro North.) A suspended elevator is an example of extreme forced relaxation. Brian and Evelyn both reported that the breakdown gave them the chance to think and chat without the constant nagging voice telling them they should be finishing up that body paragraph, studying for a stats exam, or figuring out their registration for next semester.
Perhaps it is cause for reflection that it takes a malfunctioning piece of hardware to prevent us from doing work or filling up our calendars with social events. I find this elevator malfunction to be a lesson in the value of the rare, no-strings-attached (or perhaps no-cables-attached) type of relaxation. We should seek out moments of reprieve and allow ourselves to truly relax—though preferably without being trapped in a 2,000-pound box of steel that could hurl to the ground at any second.
Spontaneity in the air
Too often, we try to seek out adventure in elaborate, artificial ways. Take, for instance, Brian and Evelyn’s earlier attempt to make their study session a fun and memorable one by drinking beforehand. The two had gone out of their way to buck convention and do something adventurous, but it ended up backfiring, rendering them unproductive and unhappy. In contrast, though the elevator’s breakdown was completely unplanned, it was not completely unhappy! Including spontaneity in our daily diet is not just something that we do for fun—it occasionally becomes a valuable life skill. Much has been written about buzzwords like “resilience” and “grit.” I prefer amateur philosopher Mike Tyson’s observation that “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the nose.” We need to develop an instinct—not a plan!—for inviting spontaneity into our lives. Practice it daily. Next time you are at Atticus, walk up to the first person you see and ask them what they are reading. Seize those opportunities for spontaneous fun, even if initially you have to nudge them into existence.
The mundane in the air
Evelyn and Brian’s response to the elevator’s breakdown also reminded me of the cliché idea that we can’t control what happens to us, only our response. After their elevator broke, the two budding DS scholars didn’t panic, or curse the Sterling powers that be for condemning them to fifteen minutes of boredom. Instead, they took the time to laugh with one another and reminisce about their day. (Admittedly, here perhaps the pre-gaming ritual in Durfee helped them make light of their situation.)
Though this choice may be subtle, I find it powerful too. In my eyes, it is reminiscent of David Foster Wallace’s famous commencement speech “This Is Water.” Life—in particular, adult life—is rife with things we don’t want to do. Even if our days are not filled with horrible tragedies, they will almost certainly be full of the mundane: waiting in line, sitting in traffic, filling out forms at the doctor’s office. Getting stuck in the elevator.
The good news: while minor inconveniences may be an inevitable component of our lives, it doesn’t have to be a bad one. We can chafe at being stuck in a line or traffic, or we can use the time to call our parents and loved ones. We can be upset that Blue State has closed, or we can view it as a chance to try Koffee. Victor Frankel wrote that everything can be taken away except for one thing: “the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Brian and Evelyn’s response to their elevator misfortune is a masterclass in finding a silver lining. Instead of complaining about their bad luck, the two viewed their time in the elevator as a gift.
So how does it end—how do our protagonists escape from the elevator? When the New Haven Fire Department arrived at the fourth floor of Sterling, they peered between the doors and asked, “Did you guys jump or something?” Brian and Evelyn laughed out a “no,” they hadn’t jumped. The firemen reached down to grab some tools, preparing to pry the door open and put an end to the pair’s suspension. But just as they were reaching out to open the doors, Brian and Evelyn heard a woosh – the doors had closed, without anyone touching them. Suddenly, they were descending to the first floor at a normal (if not slightly fast) pace. The doors opened at ground level as if nothing unusual had occurred. Upstairs, the New Haven Fire Department stared, baffled, at the situation before them. Sometimes elevators break, and then they fix themselves just when help arrives.
Brian and Evelyn gave up on doing any more work in Sterling that night. They walked home and resolved to finish up their essays the next day. Of course they woke up groggy, as expected, but grateful for their 15 minutes of elevator nothingness. Don’t all rush to Sterling to try this yourselves. Perhaps the elevator of this story has already been fixed. But we will all encounter our own broken elevators in life. Don’t be so quick to call the fire department.