On Automatic Faucets … and Self-restraint

Back when I was a very young boy and watched Sesame Street regularly, I remember this one short propaganda cartoon which came on frequently in between the hijinks of Grover, Big Bird, Oscar and the rest.  In this short cartoon a young child, about Sesame Street-watching age, began to brush his teeth, left the water on while doing it and – presumably because that water was on – the small pond outside of his house began to empty.  A fish, living in the pond, then somehow contrived to pull a phone out – from under a mossy rock apparently – in order to call the young boy and ask him to shut off the water.  There wasn’t any resolution or anything.  After the boy turned the faucet off the pond didn’t refill supernaturally, nor did the boy go out back and get a hose in order to fill it manually.  It just ended with the fish barely clinging to life and the little boy looking incredulously through the fourth wall at his young audience as if to say, “That was close!  Now, you boys and girls aren’t going to leave the faucet running, are you?”

There is certainly nothing wrong with being careful with what you have been blessed – like water for instance.  As a matter of fact, I can think of very few sins (yes, sins) worse than wanton waste and destruction.  It seems not just wrong, but also vulgar and indecent, to be overtly wasteful or destructive; as if it reveals a lack of maturity and self-control, not to mention a self-absorption that says, “I don’t need this … and I don’t care if you need it either.”

Which brings me to automatic faucets:  I have no objection to them existing and saving water as a result … I just want them to work!  I don’t want any of that perpetual absurdity in which you move your hands under the faucet and nothing happens (which incidentally seems purpose-built into their design).  I don’t want to have to wave my hands underneath, at various levels and angles, over and over, before finally figuring out that the only way to make it work is to simultaneously rub my hands against the mildew-encrusted sink.  That’s where my exasperation starts:  not necessarily in the fact that the automatic faucet has been installed in a bid to save water, but in the fact that it works so poorly.  Rocket launches seem to have a higher success rate, for pity’s sake.

What I always find interesting is that there are so few other things which work as imperfectly as an automatic faucet; especially when it comes to relatively simple things like an apparatus that senses movement.  For example, by comparison to an automatic faucet, think about how seldom an automatic door at a hotel, store, or in an airport malfunctions (unless the airport is Atlanta’s Hartsfield – then you’re lucky if the door is: a. present, and b. protecting you from the revolting humidity outside).  The automatic door operates on the same principle as the automatic faucet – it even uses the same type of electronic eye – and yet it works nearly every time, while the faucet may work once out of 352 waves of your soapy hands.

Which makes me ask: why is the automatic door so reliable and the automatic faucet so unreliable?  Is it because the electronic sensor on the faucet is always being splashed by water?  I doubt it.  After all, if the door can work in Houston (for example) – with all of its rain and humidity (whatever Houston can do, Atlanta probably can’t) – then a faucet should be able to work if it gets a few drops of water on it.  And I doubt that it is some sort of buildup of soapy film from splashes either.  Some of the worst automatic faucets I’ve found are those where the sensor is well out of reach of the water for anything less than someone using it for water-flicking target practice.

With all of that in mind, I sometimes wonder why we’ve bothered?  Are we so wedded to our desire not to waste water that we will invent some contrivance to prevent us from using any of it?  [Editor’s note:  Probably so; otherwise how would one explain the existence of low-flow shower heads?]  No, I’m not saying there is some sort of No-Washing-Hands conspiracy that works underground to prevent the electronic eye technology of the automatic door from being used on the automatic faucet for fear that little ponds full of telephone-using fish will be drained.  Though there is likely some sort of cabal of drug manufacturers who would be happy if an epidemic of some easily-preventable-by-washing-the-hands sickness struck; but I doubt they’re either A) going into the thousands of bathrooms in the United States and purposefully disabling the automatic faucets, or B) making deals with the automatic faucet developers to make sure that their faucets don’t work.

Something is bound to give at some point though.  There will come about some blissfully unaware engineer or regime-naïve home-tinkerer who will be given some start-up capital by an oblivious venture capitalist in order to market an automatic faucet which he’s developed and which will actually work … and then the jig will be up for all of those who were associated with the no-water league.  The whole world will then be full of automatic faucets which work and we will forget that there were ever dark days when you were lucky to be able to wash your hands in a public restroom.

Here’s the underlying reason which makes me write all of this silliness:  we humans miss the whole point behind something as simple as conservation of water, or trees, or land, or whatever.  We treat conservation as either the means to an end (i.e. that we won’t exhaust earth’s finite resources as quickly) or as a virtue in itself (i.e. that only “bad” people waste the earth’s resources).  Biblically-speaking, the first assumption is negated by the simple fact that the earth’s groaning in its present state has a definite ending, and therefore God will uphold the world in whatever state He wants it until that day when He releases the world from its bondage (Rom 8:18-23).  And the second assumption is negated by the fact that no action, apart from the work of Christ, can bring about virtue in man (Romans 3:21-24).  However, the real reason for a person to conserve is something much more important than either of these things.  Instead, the whole point of conservation is bound up in a person’s state of pride or humility.  You could ask yourself, “What good does it do to conserve one gallon of water in my house when my neighbors on either side of me shamelessly waste fifty gallons each?”  I always wondered, even when I was just a little guy watching Sesame Street, “What does it matter for a fish in a pond – which is filled with runoff rain water – if I open my tap at home and let it run while I brush my teeth?  Doesn’t my water come from other sources and not from the pond out back?”  Or a person could ask, “Why does it matter if I’m saving water in St. Paul, Minnesota when it doesn’t help someone suffering from drought in Winslow, AZ?”  Or a person might even ask, “Why should I conserve this water when, by using it, I continue the water cycle which nature utilizes in so many different ways?”  And your answer to all of these questions, if you based it solely on accomplishing something for the environment, would be an emphatic, “It doesn’t accomplish anything.”

However, if I’m right about a person’s state of pride or humility being the real reason to conserve and protect, then we might still say that there is good which comes to the person who conserves.  Firstly, there is the good which comes through the reinforcement of self-restraint for the good of others.  And secondly, there is the good which comes from the acknowledgement that the things which God has made have inherent value simply because God made them; and therefore shouldn’t be treated with anything resembling contempt or disregard.

As a matter of fact, conservation and protection might even be compared to prayer in this, rather important, way:  subordination.  In other words, we spend time praying to God, not because we necessarily believe that we will change God’s sovereign will, but in order to align our non-sovereign wills to His sovereign will.  Why else would we pray, as Jesus did in the garden, “Nevertheless, YOUR will be done …” (Lk 22:42)?  In the same way we conserve – whether water, food, or … whatever – because we want to have a spirit which is respectful and self-disciplined.  To either pray apart from God’s will, or to waste resources which He has ordained, is to reveal more about one’s own selfishness and arrogance than one’s piety and desire for holiness.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  I don’t believe that leaving one’s faucet on while brushing one’s teeth is as bad as elevating one’s own wishes above God’s sovereign will.  Certainly not!  I’m simply trying to compare the actions as both revealing the state of selfishness and lack of discipline in one’s soul.  Both actions go deeper than the flesh, or even the mind; they go deep into the state of one’s heart.  When we pray for our will over God’s, we reveal that all we want God to be is a celestial lackey for our desires – as if He should come when He’s called upon and provide us with what we want when we want it.  Similarly, when we waste the resources God has given us we reveal a lack of gratefulness for His provision, a lack of recognition of His omniscience, as well as a lack of personal self-restraint.

To be perfectly honest, this article is meant to be a reminder for myself more than anything else.  I tend to be so turned off by the modern environmental movement’s Gaia-worship, that I carelessly lump simple – and possibly virtuous – conservationism in with those nutcases who believe Al Gore’s hypocritical crooning.  I have to remind myself that I should be able to look at a malfunctioning automatic faucet with a measure of good humor, instead of a source of frustration.  I have to tell myself again and again that I should also remember that the faulty automatic faucet could be another way that God is trying to teach me patience and content.  Most of all though, I should look at that pitiful excuse for modern engineering as a reminder that my own self-discipline – or lack of it – when it malfunctions reveals more about the state of my soul than the benefits of the few drops of water that it conserves.

God sends forth springs in the valleys;

They flow between the mountains;

They give drink to every beast of the field;

The wild donkeys quench their thirst.

Beside them the birds of the heavens dwell;

They lift up their voices among the branches.

He waters the mountains from His upper chambers;

The earth is satisfied with the fruit of His works.

Psalm 104:10-13

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