Cold-water Alchemy

The idea to give up hot water seemed to come out of nowhere; an exhilarating thought that struck me as something I must do. So I unplugged my water heater. I washed dishes in cold water. I took cold showers.

“Why am I doing this?” I asked myself.
“Why are you doing this?” others asked me.

I didn’t know why so I made up answers that seemed plausible.

“For efficiency,” I said.

It was, after all, a hot summer. For a long time it had seemed wasteful to me to take hot showers during a hot summer when the goal was to stay cool. Now with these cold showers cooling me I could more often do without air conditioning.

I was also saving a literal ton of water and a lot of time. With the water so cold I couldn’t stand showering for more than five minutes. And only during the first and last minute did I actually use any water — one minute to get wet, one minute to rinse off, three minutes between with the water turned off during which I washed myself.

I also took far fewer showers. No longer done out of routine, or for pleasure, or on a whim; I now showered only when necessary. Less than necessary according to some.

To be clear, I hadn’t boycotted hot water entirely; just at home, so I sometimes caught one at the gym. During one gym shower it hit me that these hot showers were so exceptionally pleasant because they stood in contrast with the cold showers at home. Wasn’t that ironic! The cold showers at home, while somewhat painful in their own right, were enabling elsewhere an increase in pleasure intensity. Such insights into the nature of pleasure satisfied my philosophical bent.

“Why are you doing this?” people continued to ask.
“For efficiency… and philosophy,” I said.

At times I hated the experiment, especially during the winter months. How I loathed that first blast of icy water striking my skin. Sometimes when I got into the shower I could only stand staring at the faucet trying to convince myself to turn it on. When I managed to, I would step out of the shower a few minutes later feeling invigorated and triumphant. When I failed, when I stepped back out of the tub still dry and dirty, I felt defeated — certain that if I was faced that day with a difficult task I would shrink from it.

Now the experiment was yielding self knowledge; an external barometer of my internal resolve.

One morning, without much thought, I plugged the water heater back in, waited an hour for the water to warm, and took a hot shower. So ended the experiment after one and a half years.

After that I rarely thought about the experience, until the following year when I started studying theories of personality. Then I learned that people had different temperaments. Not only did we believe different things and have different experiences but we were wired differently, so to speak, which even inclined us toward different values.

One type valued being respectable and reliable, and trusted authority. Another valued being audacious and spontaneous, and trusted impulse. As for my type, we valued autonomy, ingenuity, and willpower, and trusted our own reasoning. These values were to some extent mutually exclusive too. My bent for autonomy, ingenuity, willpower, and reason required challenging authority.

Finally the hot-water experiment made sense to me. By giving up a dependence on hot water I had achieved greater greater autonomy. Those freezing mornings when I stood reluctantly in the shower with my hand on the faucet were opportunities to gain new willpower — opportunities to subjugate myself to reason too. I sometimes stood there giving myself little pep-talks, trying to convince myself to follow through. “Just do it. It won’t hurt you. It’ll be over soon enough.” Five minutes later I would emerge from that shower clean and covered in goosebumps, feeling stronger and more substantial than when I’d gone in. My resolve had been tested and affirmed.

It was also a means to a more independent intellect. After all, I had never decided as a rational adult that hot water was something I should have. It was a custom that I had been born into, a belief I had inherited, an artifact of indoctrination. But with the experiment I would find out for myself to what extent hot water was necessary. When I found that hot water was a mere luxury, I overcame conditioning, regained personal authority, and felt better able to tell my wants from needs.

Through this experience I had found a way to trade a creature comfort for valuable self-knowledge and an improved character. I had transmuted the superfluous into psychological gold. It was pure alchemy.

Later, as I continued to study the psyche, I heard of another ‘Self’ living deep in the mind — a subtle but powerful force pushing us toward essential life experiences. This Self was, perhaps, the real architect behind this experience. The water-heater experiment was a plan it had hatched deep in my unconscious to help me individuate. A plan that I concluded with easy detachment when I had sufficiently changed.

This and other experiences have led me to be believe that we do not determine our days as consciously as we think and that the real explanation behind some of our most significant life events and decisions lie outside our conscious machinations. But our culture has not yet reconciled itself to this. So when inevitably asked why we did this or that we quickly and cleverly go to work, manufacturing all manner of reasons that, while sensible and plausible, are ultimately untrue.