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This Cold Shower Thing, Fearless Courage, and Aristotle

[This is part of the series "How To Cultivate Habits That Will Help You Live Life Well"

Next time you get in the shower, try an experiment: With the water hot as you like, shampoo your hair, wash your face, rinse; put the conditioner on your hair; soap up and wash your body. Rinse your body, then return to rinse the conditioner out of your hair, and when there remains just a bit of that sweet slipperiness of the conditioner in your hair, your head still ducked under the water and your eyes closed, use the five second rule (count down, “5, 4, 3, 2, 1, GO”) and then turn the cold water full on, the hot water full off, and let that sweet shudder of coldness run down your spine. 

If it’s the dead of winter, you may find yourself involuntarily gasping for air. Stay in there. Let it hit your chest. You might need to protect your privates, so you don’t feel like you’ve been kicked “in the tenders,” as one of my boys calls it. Then slowly turn your body full round, counting slowly to sixty, finishing up with a last blast of cold back on the top of your head. 

There are bodily benefits: skin and hair do better, retaining moisture when the pores close up from the cold. I’ve read there is evidence of other benefits, in a sort of potential anti-depressant; better sleep; increased metabolism; increased recovery from workouts; energy boosts; etc.; all of which seems consistent with my experience. 

But in addition to all that good stuff, there are moral benefits which are not to be taken lightly. (And no, I’m not talking about fending off unruly sexual longings. Actually, it turns out that some studies indicate cold showers increase testosterone and sperm counts… I’m just reporting. Or, I should say, I’m just reporting what “The Art of Manliness” reports.)

It’s probably a tough rhetorical move, to ask you to turn your attention away from sex and thence to Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas. But let us now turn our attention. Seriously, come back to me. Let us now turn our attention: Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas discussed at length the four so-called “cardinal” virtues: courage, prudence, temperance, and justice. (The Latin “cardo” means “pivot” or “hinge.”) “The word virtue translates the Greek arete, which generally denotes excellence that comes from a thing fulfilling its purpose. Thus, a carpenter’s hammer has arete—excellence or 'virtue'—when it fulfills its purpose in driving or pulling nails. In regard to humans, to have virtue is to live well as a human being.”⁠[1]

Some years ago, after years of teaching undergraduate students various courses on “ethics,” the obvious importance of these cardinal virtues hit me in a new way. I realized that I could be the most brilliant of teachers (regarding which, of course, I think I’m not bad), my students able to describe with great nuance various ethical theories, teleological accounts of life, the manner in which eschatology may inform theological ethics, and all the like, and yet if they lacked these habits—especially, it occurred to me, if they had no courage—that all my teaching would be in vain, and would yield no real-life benefit. 

The accounts of what courage entails depends upon one’s vision of what it means to live a good life. For many of the Graeco-Roman traditions, “courage” could only be supremely exhibited by a man on the battlefield: would he be willing to kill or be killed in mortal combat?  The early Christians, with a very different vision of what it means to be human, thought the martyr was the great exhibition of courage: would one recant one’s faith or not, in the face of the lion, or the axe, or the fiery stake? 

While those competing accounts are worth a lot of debate, I would like to move past them to ask this: how does one develop courage? For Aristotle, one becomes courageous by doing courageous deeds. Christians have often spoken of the need of God’s grace in order to be courageous, while also taking seriously individual and communal responsibility for its development. In both cases, training in courage is taken seriously.

It also seems clear that such training, at a minimum, requires the willingness to undergo discomfort, even pain. It is helpful then, I think, for us to reframe many of the daily decisions we face as a question of courage. And this would also invite us to reframe many of the daily poor decisions we may make as a matter of cowardice.

Not getting out of bed in the morning in a timely fashion, to make the most of those precious morning hours? Not speaking up when I should? Not taking my work seriously, not doing my best? Perhaps it helps to call it cowardice: an inability to undergo some pain, some fear, some discomfort in order to act rightly in the given circumstance. 

The point, of course, is not to harp on the cowardice, to shame myself or others: but to move forward then to the practice of everyday courage. Our cold showers can be but simple training in everyday courage. My cold showers help me overcome my conflict avoidance, my inordinate desires, my procrastination. 

So, by looking for some daily place(s) of discomfort, I find myself more capable of speaking up, showing up, and living life well. If I am to be a courageous human being, and thus have the capacity to live well, I will need to be practicing courage, every day.

Would love to hear your experiences with the cold showers in comments below…


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"How To Cultivate Habits That Will Help You Live Life Well"

"'Pride Goeth Before the Fall.' Yeah, yeah, whatever."

"A Blog Post about Nothing, and Everything"


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[1] Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics, p. 812.

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