Saturday, May 27, 2006

So you want to stop smoking?

If you want to stop smoking, say that you are going to stop smoking.

Better yet: say that you have stopped smoking. That you have quit smoking and you are not going to smoke ever again. Not at the pub on a Friday night with your mates after a few beers. Not to calm your nerves before that big presentation that you are just scared shitless about delivering. Not when the kids have been driving you up the wall all day until you just want to scream the house down or worse.

(Actually, depending on your disposition, it may not be best to say that you’re not ever going to smoke again. You might be better off to say “I am not going to smoke – no matter what happens – and tomorrow, I’m going to make the same commitment.” Which form of commitment is best for you – that grand sweeping pronouncement or that series of small but doggedly constant steps – is not a matter of relative strength or weakness of will. It is a matter of self-awareness, most likely borne of trial and error. And which method is best (or indeed possible) may vary from one commitment to another. Anyway, let’s face it. Sometimes the differences may be more apparent than real. Just because you opt for that grand sweeping pronouncement option doesn’t mean you don’t end up repeating it to yourself every day)

But say it. Say it inside your head if that’s the only place you can. That’s certainly better than not saying it at all.

Usually though, if you want to stop smoking, it’s best to say so in front of other people – in particular, in front of people whom one knows and whose good opinion one values. And there at least a couple of reasons for that.

One is that your friends who smoke might refrain from offering you a ciggy at the pub on Friday night after you’re two sheets gone to the wind. If they’re really good friends, they might even refrain from smoking themselves while you’re around, fending off those nicotine cravings until they’ve seen you safely ciggyless to your front door after your night on the razzle. They do this because they want to see you become the person whom you want to be. They know what kind of person you want to become because you have told them clearly and unequivocably.

Another reason is that – even two sheets to the wind on a Friday night – your word might just hold you even when you don’t feel particularly like being held. Whether it’s damnable pride, not wanting to look a fool, not wanting to be someone who says one thing and does its opposite – whatever it is -- it might suffice to endure that moment of temptation until once again you want to stop smoking. Yes, it probably is a stopgap measure. Perhaps you could not sustain it forever, but sometimes a moment is enough. In the end, it is a rare motive that is not mixed.

We all know this and we all know that it applies to many things besides quitting smoking. For example, when we publicly promise ‘til death do us part’ (whether within the context of a marriage, a civil partnership, or a grand and glorious picnic festivity) we are not only calling on those who witness to help us keep that promise but also adding the weight of our word to the scales. We do this in order that, at some future point, if we might momentarily weigh our choices differently, our words will be among the things we weigh.

Publicly stating who we intend to be, even under an alias, is one of the most powerful things that we can do to make ourselves who we want to be, to keep ourselves honest. It is no failsafe (after all, what is?) but it is among the most valuable tools at our disposal.

Why is this knowledge – in so many other circumstances so deeply engrained – so often forgotten when it comes to our moral responsibilities in extremis?

Well, it’s a rare motive that isn’t mixed.

Part of it is an honest desire to avoid hubris. After all, so very many failed to hide fugitives, so many failed to resist, so many didn’t rock the boat, so many obeyed the orders, participated in atrocity. So many decided not to know. Why should we assume we shall choose better in their place? And why should we assume we shall choose better than those who are in extremis even now?

Another part of it, I suspect, is that such situations appears more suited to the ‘grand sweeping pronouncement’ than the ‘series of small but doggedly constant steps.’ That is perhaps because, in extremis, the choices most salient to our memories are those which are penultimate: the small and dogged steps that often precede them seem less central. We remember Sophie Scholl first and foremost for her courage at her trial and execution, not so much for her careful purchases of stamps and envelopes, never too many from a single shop. Yet these were inextricably linked.

Furthermore, just as we wish to avoid hubris by thinking we should do better in their place, so too we do not wish to compare ourselves with our heroes. We are not perfect. We are not blameless. We have derived material benefit from the oppression of others. We are among those culpable. How then shall we promise to match the peerless courage, the unfaltering and knowing steps of those who have resisted? Is this not the very height of arrogance? By what right do we, complicit and compromised as we doubtless are, even aspire to that?

We forget that Sophie Scholl began her long journey into resistance as an (albeit when young and only briefly) enthusiastic member of the HitlerMädchen.

Here is one more ingredient in this mixed motive.

By saying “we do not know what we should do – perhaps we should do no better, who are we to judge?” we hedge our bets. We ensure that even if we do refuse the fugitive shelter, that even if we do follow the orders, that even if we do diligently maintain that knowing unknowingness, that at least we shall not be hypocrites. At least we shall not be arrogant. At least we shall not stand accused of false pride. We shall salvage something of our character. After all, we made no promises. Thus we prepare our soft landing, thus we let ourselves down gently.

But if things come to that pretty pass and we fail, will hubris and arrogance really be chief among our regrets?

If there is someone that you want to become, lay claim to that.

If there is something you want to do, or want not to do, say so.

Promise it before people whose good opinion matters to you, whom you would hate to disappoint, whom you would hate to have think worse of you. Let your words stand among the things to be weighed: let them help you become that which you desire to be. Perhaps they shall be a tipping point: avail yourself of them.

For if they do not suffice, it will in any case become abundantly clear that there are failings far greater than hypocrisy.

19 Comments:

Blogger Nanette said...

Sometimes a symphony; sometimes wind chimes; sometimes a lyre and cymbals; often a surgeons scalpel, perfectly balanced. Or maybe x-rays?

There is a lot to think about here. I had to go look up Sophie Scholl... between you and Ductape, I'm certainly getting an education.

I need to come back to this when I have more time.

5/27/2006 6:22 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

5/27/2006 6:55 pm  
Blogger dove said...

Well then the education is mutual mutual -- I'm really glad you've been writing and reposting more often. I hadn't seen most of them the first time around.

(OT -- the deleted comment was just some rather graceless spam)

5/27/2006 7:15 pm  
Blogger Nanette said...

Thanks. I am finding it easier to write (and to post stuff I've written before), now that I'm not posting things at bootrib. Not that anyone ever said anything bad or anything like that, it was just too much pressure... my style of writing (blahviating) is not really a political site style, lol. Anyway, feels like there is more room to explore in the diaspora.

There is still a great deal to say about this piece... I have a feeling it's going to be one of those where one keeps wandering in to pick up on this or that point, because it's saying so much.

5/28/2006 1:19 am  
Blogger DuctapeFatwa said...

Graceless spam? OK as long as it wasn't a unique opportunity to refinance mortgage loans or render assistance to an exiled Rwandan bank official in the matter of an unclaimed seven figure sum.

Or especially an offer of absolutely free herbal hair replacement software.

dove, as usual, you bring such fresh and unexpected perspective to questions as old as time.

My critics may be comforted to know that I smoke. :)

Nanette, there is a famous Sophie Scholl quote that reminds me of you. Not exact, but to the effect of, there were many who thought the same things we wrote, they just did not dare express it, and somebody had to start.

How young she was, barely more than a child, was she still in that glorious bubble, the immortality of youth? Can we, who have long emerged from that bubble, forge our unshakable convictions into that invincible courage?

Can we do otherwise? ;)

5/28/2006 1:32 am  
Blogger dove said...

Hmm -- I certainly don't think your writing is 'blahviating' Nanette. Your style is probably more reflective (and perhaps because of that, less overtly topical) than many other political writers though.

Your writing tends to invite conversations to open out as well, which I admire.

5/28/2006 4:09 pm  
Blogger dove said...

Ductape,

I assure you that in the event of receiving spam for absolutely free herbal hair replacement software, I shall leave it up for your express benefit ;)

I used to smoke occasionally when I lived in the U.S., but fortunately, rarely and infrequently enough that stopping was more about whim than willpower. (Consider the appropriate lecture from descendant to ancestor to have been delivered here).

That glorious bubble. Does it exist? And if so, does it exist for everyone (at some point) or only for some people? I'm certainly not saying it never exists -- the idea has such currency that it obviously has resonance (I've used it myself!)But when I think of risks friends of mine used to run every now and then -- not political -- it seems to me that sometimes they did so, not out of a secret belief in immortality, but rather out of a kind of indifference. At least in that moment, I suspect they didn't particularly care whether they lived or died (or possibly at that moment it was just there were other things they cared about more), which is a different thing, I think.

Hmm, off-topic rambling . . .

5/28/2006 4:53 pm  
Blogger DuctapeFatwa said...

Not off topic at all, and yes, I would say that that indifference is but another facet of the immortality of youth, as evidenced by the fact that we older folks, assuming that we are not living with alcoholism or other illness, would find it difficult to drink a couple of liters of vodka and then get into a car and drive it at a hundred miles an hour in the wrong lane of a crowded expressway with true and sincere indifference.

And we are similarly more likely to think twice before engaging in any sort of "activism" that could result in anything from job loss to internment in a "facility," leaving those who depend on us for their daily bread to fend for themselves unless they too may be called in to face the interrogator's waterboard and tongs.

And on the subject of smoking, the descendant in this case is the wise one. However, due to the fact that in the last 6 months I have enacted such radical diet and lifestyle changes in deference to having caught the shugga dye bead eaze, I am quite sincerely afraid that to attempt to stop smoking at this time might prove more dangerous to my health than continuing the unarguably terrible habit.

5/28/2006 10:07 pm  
Blogger dove said...

Hmm. I'd put the express way example squarely in the obnoxiously exuberant "I'm secretly immortal and infallible" camp (tantamount I suppose to an admission of the glorious bubble's existence, at least for some) -- and yes, there is a kind of indifference in that, but it's indifference borne of disbelief.

The indifference I'm thinking of doesn't have that element of exuberance or disbelief (though depending on circumstances it might have other things, like solipsism).

On thinking twice. Herta Probst and her children were left in a dire and heartbreaking situation-- indeed she lost not only her husband, but her father as well in the end. But isn't there a point at which the choice is between risking different kinds of heartbreak?

5/29/2006 11:12 am  
Blogger DuctapeFatwa said...

Yes, I think solipcism is a very accurate way to describe it, in fact, for some people, it seems to morph into a kind of grownup solipcism, where drinking the vodka and driving the car gives way to a more introspective version.

And yes, I think the situation about two heartbreaking choices is not too different from the pundit, can't remember which one, who described teen suicide in this particular day and age as a healthy reaction to an unhealthy situation.

5/29/2006 11:28 pm  
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