Skip to site content

Can’t Seem to Change? Try Reaching Your Boiling Point

I am told that when Walt Whitman read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “The Poet,” he was highly influenced.
When the young Whitman heard Emerson say that the United States needed a poet to capture, in a proper fashion, its national spirit and character, the ambitious and perhaps foolhardy writer decided that he was that poet.

Whitman would later say, “I was simmering, simmering, simmering. Emerson brought me to a boil!”

What followed from Whitman’s pen were such works as the ever popular “Leaves of Grass” and other classics, revered today as great literature.

In December 1996, the journalist Malcolm Gladwell published an article on the notion of a societal “tipping point” – that time when an emergent social trend crosses a threshold, begins to spread more widely across the culture and becomes a recognizable social movement.

Gladwell later published a book on this notion and, today, the idea of the “tipping point” has passed a similar milestone of recognition, so that it now stands as a trustworthy description of social reality.

As a sociologist who, decades before Gladwell’s insights, labored over a graduate thesis on social change, I recognize that he has described well a true social construct, and our shared understanding has been enhanced by his keen observation.

Recently, I have been considering the relationship between Gladwell’s “tipping point” and Whitman’s “simmering, simmering, simmering” and being “brought to a boil.”

Of course, all of us are influenced by “tipping points” and are “brought to a boil” for one reason or another.

Given the vitriol expressed often by so many on social networks these days, one might be justified in concluding that many are “simmering, simmering, simmering” and “brought to a boil” by the recognition that some “tipping points” have been crossed in our shared culture.

But, while “tipping points” seem to be social in character and often are the result of macrocultural forces over which we seem to have little control, being “brought to a boil” seems more personal.

While both of these images describe forces that appear to be largely beyond the power of the individual, the boiling point seems to evidence more personal decision and initiative.

It raises the question within me, “What do I perceive in my world that causes me to cross a line (or to recognize that I and my fellow companions have crossed a line), that “burns me up” or that motivates me to do something that previously had been lying dormant within me?

While Gladwell’s “tipping point” seems to be impersonal and reactive, the “boiling point,” at least for Whitman, was personal and proactive.

It is actually quite refreshing to hear Whitman speak of making some personal decisions about who and what he wanted to become as a result of arriving at his own boiling point.

While so many seem to be “steamed” about so much these days, and we often read their caustic remarks on social media, we more rarely hear of someone who determines to make necessary changes within herself or himself, as a result of arriving at a “boiling point.”

That surely is because personal changes are more difficult, less appealing, more private and far less noticeable than incendiary rhetoric. Talk is cheap, but genuine, personal change requires far more than a few coins.

Maybe it’s also because making significant alterations to one’s life and lifestyle, especially when going against social trends, takes longer to make a social impact.

My own sense is that – public or not, immediate in impact or long-term in consequence, difficult to achieve or harder to pull off – our world today actually needs more of us whose simmering sense of moral outrage can be effectively channeled in a manner that actually motivates us toward greater transformation within ourselves.

It looks to me like we’ve had enough of the “angry arguer” syndrome. What we now need is deliberate, personal transformation.

Perhaps, if more of us were willing to make internal personal changes, in a few years we just might see some healthier “tipping points” in the social world at large.

Bob Newell is ministry coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Athens, Greece. A version of this column first appeared on his blog, ItsGreek2U, and is used with permission.