“All these things are interconnected.”
Xenophon, The Estate Manager
This is one of my all-time favorite quotations. It speaks to so many things. The original context in Xenophon is Ischomachus reporting how he would put his horse through its paces while riding over his estate. This had a three-fold purpose: it kept him healthy and in shape, it trained him (and his horse!) for war, and it gave occasion to watch over the agricultural production on his estate.
I’m convinced that this statement expresses a broader confidence that the various aspects of a good human life are always intertwined. We are surprised again and again to find that in a well-ordered life what is good for us in one way ends up being good for us in other ways too, often in spirit and body.
There are much better examples of this than taking cool showers. Yet I think it not beneath our notice that in cool showers, too, we find a pleasing and practical, even if somewhat uncomfortable, example.
I say ‘cool’ because cold showers can be downright painful and might seem beyond reach. Cool is a relative term and can denote the range from ‘definitely not warm’ to ‘bordering on cold.’ So how are such showers multivalent?
First, they can be part of a plan to develop the virtue of courage. According to Aristotle at the heart of courage is the ability to endure what is difficult, in view of the human good. Now we don’t, or in any case shouldn’t, go out and orchestrate difficult circumstances in daily life. Life will deliver difficulties sufficient for the day, and such will be the main context for practicing courage. At the same time, chosen practices that toughen our body and strengthen our will offer a real opportunity to grow our discipline and resolve in view of the good.
Second, cool showers conserve energy. As I look at my day and ask myself: where is a low-hanging fruit opportunity to lessen the amount of fuel I consume, the answer that comes to me is showers. As a rule, we Westerners take showers notably longer and notably warmer than they need to be. This unnecessarily, perhaps even profligately, consumes a large quantity of energy.
One might venture a ‘so what?’ at this point. Might not the whole energy crisis thing be overblown, and besides, do my showers really make a difference?
The answer to this objection seems straightforward. I don’t know the scientific ins and outs of the world’s energy supply. But I am convinced of this: it is fitting and indeed righteous that we have an attitude of stewardship toward the earth’s resources. By any measure these resources are ultimately limited, and we should work together to assure that all people can get what they need. Further, an attitude of gratitude is expressed in treating the gifts we have received with appropriate care.
It seems to me that willingly foregoing comfortably warm showers is an excellent way to foster and express a conviction that the earth’s resources are a gift to all of us—a gift that should be appropriately treasured. So whether my small efforts will significantly impact the bigger picture or not, it is simply a good thing to do. In fact then this second reason to take cool showers ends up being twofold: the resources are conserved and we practice the appropriate inner attitude toward them.
There is science that suggests that cool, perhaps especially cold showers also have positive health benefits. The first two reasons above might be sufficient in themselves, but it won’t be surprising to discover that there are more good reasons to take cool showers, at least sometimes. Just a small instance here, of how ‘all these things’ are wonderfully interconnected.
Xenophon (430-354 B.C.) was a soldier, historian, and philosopher of Athens. Like Plato he wrote dialogues featuring Socrates as a great teacher. Among these dialogues is Oeconomicus, translated as The Estate Manager, in which we get an insight into the structure and principles of the ancient household.
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Also a daily habit of cold showers provides an opportunity for festivity on Sundays and feasts when we can allow ourselves warmer water. It’s pretty festive especially in winter when a cold shower is very cold indeed.
Placidus, Amen to that. A hot shower can then be especially festive!
Hot showers are a gift from God
Check out Aquinas: Summa Theologica, IaIIae, Q.38, A.5, Obj. 1 and Ad. 1.
I appreciate this textual reference. For other readers, here is the text:
“Whether pain and sorrow are assuaged by sleep and baths?
Objection 1. It would seem that sleep and baths do not assuage sorrow. For sorrow is in the soul: whereas sleep and baths regard the body. Therefore they do not conduce to the assuaging of sorrow.
Reply to Objection 1. The normal disposition of the body, so far as it is felt, is itself a cause of pleasure, and consequently assuages sorrow.”
Here a couple of quick thoughts:
The focus of my reflection was that there are good reasons to take cool showers instead of hot showers, at least sometimes. I did not assert, nor did I mean to imply, that hot showers are never fitting. I think a good hot shower can certainly be fitting.
I did suggest that the modern Western practice of long hot showers is excessive. Allow me to clarify: I mean here the practice of taking regular, unnecessarily lengthy hot showers.
I certainly grant that hot water and the pleasure it brings is, as all of material creation, a gift from God. I also see that it can be used for a good end. St. Thomas Aquinas refers to using a bath to ‘assuage sorrow.’ This strikes me as making much sense. On the other hand, I don’t think that daily hot showers are therefore in order as a matter of course, as though sorrow needing assuaging by hot water is a daily occurrence. We should also bear in mind that St. Thomas’s comment on baths as assuaging sorrow completely abstracts from the energy question, which should be considered as regards hot showers.
Another thing worth considering are these words of St. Thomas: “for where a man is accustomed to enjoy pleasures, it is more difficult for him to endure the lack of them.” (S.t. II II Q. 138, art. 1, reply to 1) He says this in the context of referring to a ‘softness’ that is contrary to perseverance, which is an act of courage. This seems to me very much to the point. A regular practice of taking hot showers simply because they feel good might be just the kind of thing that makes it more difficult for a person to endure the lack of pleasures, thereby compromising the virtue of courage.
But please let me conclude by saying I intend my focus here to be on the good reasons to take cool showers—perhaps just some times, or often, or maybe always—because of positive fruits. I do not think that hot showers are never licit, and I think they can be enjoyed in a reasonable way. Thank you for your comment.
Great article. I’m reminded of my days in the navy where the shipboard routine encouraged brief showers to the extent of turning off the water while lathering down prior to rinsing off. Fresh water was in short supply so thoughtfulness in preserving it in any way was important. Thanks to your timely article I will start practicing better stewardship of both water itself and the energy which would be consumed in heating it when I shower. <
Ron, Isn’t it something how military service has a unique way of focusing us on some important things. Thanks for sharing.
Excellent thoughts. I’m glad you don’t advocate for cold showers. When the hot water heater went out, I had a couple cold showers: literally took my breath away! I find I just shut off the water while soaping up to conserve and be a good steward. I get cold fingers and toes and can’t do the cool showers in a MN winter. (Besides, with 2 showers and a household of 10, one naturally must be efficient!)
Yes, “All these things are interconnected.” This is so fitting to my walks at a local nature center, which serve the purpose of peace and quiet, time with Our Lord in prayer, enjoying the beauty of nature – and exercise.
Appreciate your weekly posts.
God bless you and yours,
Melisa, I love your example of all things being interconnected–perfect.
Along the lines of your comment on the cold water, my wife was just saying to me: “Everyone needs to find his own ‘cool.'” I really like that way of putting it. Cool is relative, and for some of us it might just be lukewarm–especially in winter. Thanks for your words.
John, thank you for the insights, and in particular, that cool showers can be “part of a plan to develop the virtue of courage.” Simple and practical. I appreciate the guidance on ways to grow in virtue by making small, intentional adjustments to carrying out daily tasks. Would you be able to elaborate, perhaps in another post, on how to develop a plan to grow in particular virtues through small, daily tasks?
Anthony, What a great request. I appreciate it very much, and I will indeed do what I can to address that. Thanks again.
This is very inspiring. I especially like that you don’t make the suggestion from a solely ascetic standpoint, but for purposes of conservation, which sadly, many a person does not give a hoot about. It’s an important focus. I could only put this into practice by dint of a colossal effort as luxuriating under hot running water is a guilty indulgence, unfortunately. Perhaps one way to begin to make steps in the right direction would be to limit the amount of time to a more reasonable amount–5 minutes instead of 10…or 20.