A little scarcity is good for the soul

[Note: written during the great Cape drought of 2017-2018, when water restrictions were imposed]

I was shaving the other day and because I live in Cape Town right now, I saved the water for purposes of repurposing. Afterwards I examined it and it wasn’t a lot but I found it deeply interesting, simply because I had never before seen precisely how much water is used when I shave.

I stood there studying the water, obscurely pleased to have acquired this new knowledge, wondering exactly how I had lived so long and shaved so many times without knowing precisely how much each shave consumes. It seemed suddenly baffling to me to have spent so long being so casually uninterested. I had a similar experience when showering in a bath with the plug in, and being able to see precisely how much water usually runs down the drain.

Please be assured this isn’t one of those tedious exercises in lecturing you about how much water we waste without thinking: as a matter of fact I was pleasantly surprised by how little it used. My point is that I think of myself as an enquiring person but I can’t be, or how could I have spent my entire life being so thoroughly incurious about such an everyday thing? The water crisis in Cape Town will end one of these days, and when it does of course I’ll be happy, but I’ll also be a little sad, as though I’ve lost something.

I know that I’m supposed to be angry or afraid about the water situation. Increasingly those are the only two acceptable responses to the world, especially online. If you try to show understanding or compassion, if you try to see the upside or be optimistic, if you simply try not to worry about something you can’t control you’ll be derided as a fool or a stooge, too ignorant or too privileged, too callous or too weak, PC or unwoke. I should be blaming the DA or the national government or my fellow Capetonians or God or the gays or the weather service. Someone from Joburg asked me recently in somewhat indignant tones why I’m not more angry about the water and I didn’t reply because I suddenly felt embarrassed, as though this were a sign of my weak-mindedness, some flaw running through me made shamefully visible.

The fact is, I don’t like joining in the great orgies of non-stop handwringing and fist-shaking and bewailing that increasingly constitutes our daily round. I don’t think it’s good for us and I don’t think it helps anything. But another weird truth is that I don’t really mind this phase of the crisis we’re in right now, where there is still water coming from our taps but not so much that we can be sure it always will. I think being made aware of the water, becoming conscious of it, is an opportunity, a curious kind of gift.

Recently first-level water restrictions were re-introduced in Johannesburg, constraining citizens from using drinkable water to clean their driveways. There is something profoundly absurd in the thought that we would ever use drinkable water to clean driveways or flush toilets or to sprinkle over grass, no matter how full the dams. I think such a restriction is good for the water supply, but it’s also good for our souls.

I think there is something in human beings that is deformed by not having enough of what it needs – food, money, leisure, water – but also that spoils when we have too much of it, when it’s so guaranteed that we take it for granted. I think deep down we’re still creatures of the savannah, that we fulfil our deepest natures when we’re grateful for the rains and the catch and the crops, appreciative not complacent in times of abundance. I’m deeply fortunate to have more money than I strictly need, but I consider myself equally lucky that I don’t have as much as some friends of mine who I see growing rotten and hollow with money, who seem to me to be sickening for want of want. I think we are happiest and most fulfilled when are intensely and lovingly aware of the things we use that are finite: water is one of those things. Health is another. So is time.

The water restrictions are forcing me to be more mindful, to examine mundane aspects of my life hitherto unexamined. They force me to be more conscious – to feel, in some not quite explicable and not always comfortable way, more alive. Of course I want the water crisis to end before there is suffering, and as a citizen it would be absurd to say that right now I’m perversely grateful for it, that I see it as an opportunity for someone living a privileged, complacent life to live a little more consciously and fully, but as a human being that is secretly how I feel.

The Times, 28 February 2018