Discontinuous Change (p.189-190)

If we look at change as something that happens incrementally at a steady, predictable rate, in which the progress--or lack thereof — in one decade gives a measure of what is likely to take place in the next, we can get very discouraged. But along with continuous change, there is also discontinuous change. Sudden shifts can happen in ways that surprise us; structures that appear as fixed and solid as the Berlin Wall can collapse or be dismantled in a very short time. An understanding of discontinuous change opens up a genuine sense of possibility.

Consider what happens to a bottle of water when it is left in the freezer. As it cools down, there is a steady continuous change in its temperature. The water won’t change much in appearance until it begins to get near the critical threshold of its freezing point. Then, as it passes this, an extraordinary process happens. Tiny crystals form, and when they do, other crystals form around those crystals, until there is a mass movement of crystallization in the water that rapidly changes state from liquid to solid. This is discontinuous change.

With discontinuous change, a threshold is crossed where rather than just more of the same happening, something different occurs. There’s a jump to a new level, an opening to a new set of possibilities. We might think it impossible that a small amount of water could crack something as hard as glass, but as the ice expands, it breaks the bottle. Even when we don’t see a visible result from our actions, we may be adding to an unseen change that moves the situation closer to a threshold where something crystallizes.