Phase Change vs. Plateau: How We Change the Most When We Think We’re Changing the Least

Few things frustrate me more than the feeling that I have “plateaued.”

The rhetoric of our culture teaches our progress should be an upward slope. Or at least, a jagged line that goes up and down but still slopes upward, on average. So if my progress seems more like a long flat line, I must be doing something wrong. Right?

My plateau was particularly poignant about four years ago (when I was single, living in my parent’s basement, and dissatisfied with work and school). During that time, I often thought to myself, “Hey, I’m doing everything I can think of to grow and improve in these certain areas, but nothing is changing!”

But one day, a lesson in my college chemistry class changed the way I see plateaus forever. 

I listened, a bit bored at first, as my chemistry teacher explained that “one calorie is the energy needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius.” The teacher then quizzed the class by asking, “So, at 100 degrees Celsius, if we add ten calories, what is the new temperature?”

I thought, “Okay, if one calorie can raise the temperature by one degree, then ten calories would raise the temperature by . . . ten degrees. So just add 10 to 100, right?” The whole class agreed that the answer was 110 degrees Celsius.

“Wrong! It’s a trick question!” the teacher gleefully declared, pointing to the chart on the projector. And once the teacher explained why it was a trick question, suddenly my whole life started making more sense.

Consider the chart below that shows the heating curve for water. (I created this particular chart myself, for simplicity.) The horizontal line is time and the vertical line is temperature. Imagine you have an ice cube, the solid form of water. Let’s say the inner temperature of the ice is -20 degrees Celsius. As you apply heat (or calories) to that ice cube, the temperature of the water increases (you can see this increase illustrated in the first diagonal red line). But when you reach 0 degrees Celsius . . . suddenly the temperature stops increasing, even though you’re still applying heat. It’s a flat line! 

What? Why has it plateaued? Is all the energy that you’re putting into it doing nothing?!

No, your energy is doing something. But instead of increasing the temperature, that energy is now changing the water into a different state of matter—changing the molecules from solid to liquid. Only when the ice is completely melted and completely transformed from solid to liquid does the temperature start rising again. The temperature climbs up until it reaches 100 degrees, and then it flattens again as the energy works to change the water from liquid to gas.

Those plateaus, when matter changes from solid to liquid, and then from liquid to gas, are called phase changes

That day in chemistry, I stared at a similar chart up on the projector. I stared at the flat lines that represented the phase changes. Then I began having flashbacks to moments of my life over the previous year. Moments of longing and anguish when I had wanted to scream, “I don’t understand! I’m putting so much energy into trying to improve, but I don’t see anything in my life changing!” 

In those moments, I had wanted and expected to see my progression as an upward slope, but instead saw only a flat line. I thought I had plateaued. 

But I didn’t plateau; I was phase changing. And I wasn’t only changing; I was becoming. Under the surface, the very molecules of my soul were transforming. Only when the transformation was complete could I then climb upward again.

In the two months prior to the incident in my chemistry class, everything in my life seemed to change all at once. I moved twice, I got a new job, I bought my first car, I made spontaneous adjustments to my education plan, I made breakthroughs in certain relationships, I changed my diet and other health habits, I started a blog, I made new friends, and much more.

I thought that my life had finally started changing in just those two months. But once I grasped the concept of phase change, a voice inside me whispered, “No, the real change happened during your so-called plateau.”

Plateaus can be frustrating time periods for us because we can’t see the phase changes taking place. So how can we know we’re changing? In the case of the heating curve for water, we can assume that heat is being added at a constant rate to produce a phase change. In our lives, what energy is the spiritual equivalent of heat?

The answer is faith.

If one calorie is the energy needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius, then perhaps, similarly, one mustard-seed of faith is the spiritual energy needed to move one mountain in our lives (see Matthew 17:20).

The reason I can say with confidence that my “plateau” year was a phase change is that I learned so much about faith that year. I was constantly praying and seeking, and my search led me to amazing books and resources that transformed my definition of faith and altered my thought patterns. So when the opportunities I’d been waiting for finally arrived, my new way of thinking enabled me to recognize and seize those opportunities without freezing up or stumbling in the process.

My journey during and after my plateau reminds me of the lyrics to a song called “Unanswered Yet,” penned by F. G. Burroughs In 1879. (I love the entire song, especially the version composed by Michael McLean.) The beginning of the song says,

Unanswered yet? The prayer your lips have pleaded

In agony of heart these many years?

Does faith begin to fail, is hope departing,

And think you all in vain those falling tears?

These first few lines express how someone might feel when they think they’re on a plateau, wondering why all their faith doesn’t seem to be making any difference. A few verses later, the song reads,

Unanswered yet? Nay, do not say ungranted;

Perhaps your part is not yet wholly done;

The work began when first your prayer was uttered,

And God will finish what He has begun.

If you will keep the incense burning there,

His glory you shall see, sometime, somewhere.

Armed with my new understanding, thanks to my chemistry class, I can see that this verse is describing the beginning of a phase change. When this person’s first prayer was uttered, the phase change commenced, and the promise of glory (or an upward incline) became certain, so long as faith continues burning bright.

The beginning of the last verse says,

Unanswered yet? No, faith cannot be unanswered.

Whether a calorie is fitting its definition of “raising the temperature by one degree,” or whether that calorie is changing matter from a solid to a liquid, the calorie is still doing its work. Just as our faith is always doing something, whether it’s moving mountains or refining our souls. Faith cannot be unanswered.

I am very excited to see what the coming years will bring, because, for many of us, the entire year of 2020 was a “plateau” year! In some ways, the whole world seemed to be at a standstill . . . or was it?

In the October 2020 General Conference, President Uchtdorf observed that, since the start of the pandemic, many of us have been waiting for life to return to normal, “like flying in a holding pattern, waiting for the fog to lift so we can land safely.” 

What Elder Uchtdorf calls a “holding pattern” is another way to describe a plateau, and our desire to “land safely” is another way to say that we want to reverse our phase change and return to our previous, solid state of matter. But Elder Uchtdorf went on to testify that in reality we are “moving forward and upward to places we’ve never been, to heights we can hardly imagine!” 

By seeing our plateaus as phase changes, we can become aware that the periods of life when we don’t think we’re changing are actually when we’re changing the most. With this new awareness, we can face setbacks with more peace of mind, recognize the power of our every-day acts of faith, and confidently anticipate the unimaginable heights that lie ahead.

So the next time your life seems at a standstill and you wonder “Why is nothing changing?” ask yourself instead “What am I phase changing into?”

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