Monday, February 17, 2014

what my stupid stairs taught me about life

Our house has two stories, which means it has stairs. Every time we're faced with the prospect of moving (which has been six times in nearly seven years of marriage), I declare that I would like to live in place with no stairs. Stairs make the moving in/out process far worse than it would be without stairs. In daily life, the term "all the way upstairs" or "all the way downstairs" translates to "not worth getting."

In the six places we've lived in our marriage, however, none of them have been stair-less. We've had bare concrete stairs, concrete stairs covered in tile, bare wooden stairs, and wooden stairs covered in carpet. Some have been creaky, some have been dangerously steep,  some claustrophobia-inducing, some "awkward," some cracked and falling apart. In other words, I don't tend to think kindly on stairs1. The stairs in our current home are no exception. Let me walk you through a journey up them:

Things start out normally; Steps 1 and 2 teach your brain how tall to expect each step to be (in this case, 8 inches). This is confirmed on steps 3, 4, and 5. So on step 6, you raise your foot an appropriate height and then press it down firmly enough to lift your weight onto the step. But—surprise!—step 6 is 4 inches tall. Your foot smacks down with excessive force and you stumble forward slightly. The next step seems inordinately tall, and as you continue up the flight of stairs, you get the distinct feeling that the stairs are all different heights. Of course, this all happens in the span of about 10 seconds.

When we first moved in four months ago, I loudly criticized the maker of our stairs every single time I stepped on short little step 6 (an average of 2,000 times a day, since we were moving in). Anytime someone new came over and got the upstairs tour, I always eagerly watched to see how little step 6 threw them off. Then we would apologize that our house had weird stairs and would blame the careless builders. After the first month went by, my mind finally adjusted to the weird steps to the point where I almost didn’t have to think about it—almost. I still noticed, and thought it ridiculous.

DSCN1802My first theory was that whoever made the steps was probably a first-timer. I’m sure making stairs can be hard, and this guy was having a rough go at it. By the time he was getting around to forming the last three steps, he realized that the whole set was going to be a few inches too tall, so he said to himself, “No problem! I’ll just shorten one step by 4 inches! Problem solved!” This, I thought, was a stupid solution, but it helped me make sense of this mad world.

This theory was debunked by the fact that our neighbors’ house (a mirror image of ours) has identical stairs. Their step 6 is also short. If the design had been a mistake, it didn’t seem the kind you would make an exact copy of. I had no other theory; in the absence of sense, I believed doggedly than an idiot was involved somehow2.

It seemed like an unrelated note at the time, but I was going down the stairs a week or two ago and I noticed something. It seems on most flights of indoor stairs, there’s a part of the ceiling that tall people like me have to watch out for so we don’t hit our heads on it as we go up or down the stairs. Our house is no exception, and as I was coming down the stairs that day, I eyed the sharp corner made by this overhang and wondered why I had never hit my head on it before. Was it because I always walked with my head down? I stretched my head up tall as I walked down to see just how much of it would be injured if given the proper chance. The answer? None! It turns out that step 6 is intentionally sized and placed so that even tall people won’t nail their heads on the ceiling.

I was surprised, and I felt a little guilty for using the words stupid and idiot so freely. It was one of those humbling moments where something you swear has no sense proves itself to have made sense all along if you had been open enough to see it. The unexpected design wasn’t out of carelessness; rather it was a solution formed for a very real problem that the thoughtful builder observed. I got a measuring tape out and discovered that steps 7-10 are all an extra inch taller to make up for the height lost by step 6.

I was so surprised by this that I had an epiphany: this is exactly how cultures, rules, and behaviors are formed. As people encounter situations demanding a response or problems needing resolution, they come up with one—sometimes unconsciously, sometimes through deliberation. To those who say, "Everything happens for a reason," I say, "No—everything happens from a cause." My sister who's a counselor pointed out to me once that all behavior is an attempt to meet a need. I would go so far as to say that a culture is nothing more than a large, unique collection of methods/behaviors for meeting needs with the available means. 

There are a number of different ways of resolving any problem or behaving in any scenario. Some solutions are more common than others. Other solutions are really creative and unexpected. Not all of them are equally effective, but each of them is the result of attempting to meet a very real need. It's easier to call a method stupid than it is to understand the cause for its existence. I think understanding the cause behind behavior is a big step (no pun intended) in developing compassion, understanding, and humility.

I still think making one stair four inches shorter than the others is a bad solution, but it doesn't make me mad anymore. You know what would make me mad? Hitting my head every time I walked up the stairs. That would just be stupid.


1. I think the only stairs I haven't had an especially negative opinion of were the stairs at the Fredericks' house where we lived all last year. They were still stairs, though, so I didn't love them.

2. Stupid and idiot are funny words, since they can refer to either a failure of intelligence or of virtue (or of both, I suppose). In Spanish, estúpido and idiota tend towards the latter: calling someone these things is the equivalent of calling them an unflattering body part.


  1. This is a great cultural insight. Sounds like an example from one of the cross-cultural books. Thanks for sharing!

  2. So funny, you made me laugh! It'd be interesting to see you go up stairs when you come home to "normal" stairs again. I wonder if you will stub your toe on #6. Love to you both! Myra


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