Vara Blanca, Costa Rica, 2005
In my country it is called “Thermitron.” Here, they call it “Termo.”
It is an electric showerhead that instantly heats running cold water to provide a hot shower in remote places where the installation of elaborate water heaters and tanks is difficult or just too costly. While I’m in this part of the world, my morning and evening companion is my friend Termo.
Termo is a very sensitive, or rather very basic, showerhead. It needs a minimum amount of water flow to activate the heating coils. Once activated, the more you increase the water flow (water volume), the lower the water temperature becomes, since the same coils end up heating a larger amount of water as it passes through. Simply put: hotter temperature, less water. Because of this simple equation, Termo only has a single dial that one can turn clockwise or counter-clockwise to simply increase/decrease the volume of water (and proportionally decrease/increase the temperature). Consequently, at the point of maximum heat, which is the point of lowest water volume, Termo automatically switches off because there is not enough water going through the coils – the water flow falls below the minimum required to activate it. At this point, Termo leaves you standing in a deluge of freezing cold water. In other words, while you are enjoying the hottest possible water, if you turn the dial a millimeter more than you should, you end up frozen!
Here I am, for the last twenty minutes trying to regulate the water temperature in order to have a nice hot shower. But the hot is never hot enough – just warm. And as I’m about to get it right, just a little bit hotter…bloop, I get a quantum jump from the warmest to the coldest water. The point of maximum comfort and pleasure suddenly becomes freezing hell.
Having the perfect shower is impossible, but slowly-slowly (half an hour to regulate the water temperature gives one plenty of time to philosophize) I realize that my struggle with the playful behavior of Termo is a perfect simulation of Life itself:
Our moments of greatest triumph can often be the beginning of a fall; the highest peaks are the points from which only descent is possible. Was not the Greeks’ furthest expansion, with Alexander’s conquest, the beginning of the end of their Classical Civilization? Did not Britain’s victory in the Second World War mark the end of her global empire? Is not the moment of our highest wisdom, in deep old age, the moment of our maximum physical deterioration?
There is still more: what separates my property from yours is a thin wooden fence around the garden, as thin, compared to the size of the earth, as the millimeter that separates Termo’s hot from cold water. What separates life from death is a single heartbeat that goes missing. What keeps sanity from insanity is a thin line one might cross in a single moment of weakness.
But Termo’s rich symbolism does not end here. Like its running water, it keeps the stream of symbols and analogies flowing:
Termo teaches us the simple fact that “Life is not easy.” Like a Termo shower, our life is in constant need of adaptations. It requires constant mindfulness, endless readjustments, a harmonizing of opposing forces and elements. Is not the constant dance between our dreams and aspirations on the one hand, and our constant failings on the other, what moves the strings of our lives? Are we not all constantly dancing between our changing moods – between our own personal hot and cold? Is not our whole life but one long balancing act – are we not all tightrope walking, constantly readjusting the water temperature?
Termo also perfectly simulates our ordinary daily life with its endless desires: What does our normal daily life consist of? We first desire something (hot water). We achieve it (nice warm water running over our bodies). But then we get used to it (we take it for granted) and start thinking “what if it were just a little bit warmer?” The handle-dance begins: more money, larger house, greater social status, fame. And we start dancing to the tune of our own music, around the cravings of our own creation. Our desire for more does not allow us to enjoy what we already have. Yet in the end, most of us manage to go through life and live our days in full, playing a game we ourselves have chosen (even though we often ascribe it to other external “forces”). Just like in the end, with Termo cooperating with or resisting all my efforts, I always somehow manage to have a shower!
If all the elements that constitute our being alive were to be given one simple and clear symbol, I think my friend Termo would be as good as any other. But we are not done yet. For Termo keeps his final secret guarded until the end:
What sets Termo apart from all other gas or electric water heaters and tanks is one major advantage that more than balances all its nerve-breaking defects: it gives an endless supply of hot water.Unlike the gas or electric heaters that heat a specific amount of water in a reservoir that runs out once it is used, Termo continuously transforms an endless cold stream into an endless hot one. So one can enjoy a hot shower for as long as one wishes. Herein lies the major symbol of Termo: our days on earth, like the hot water that never ends, are ceaselessly renewed, abundantly offered for as long as we are alive. Irrespective of what comes and goes in our lives, Life itself, the constant stream of aliveness that is at the core of our being, never ceases – even if we, as a rule, fail to feel it, notice it, or even acknowledge its existence. Although our body is constructed of molecules of dead matter (like the dead cold water entering Termo), our being is continuously permeated by Life. A Life that is like the warm, soothing, abundantly supplied water of Termo.