I miss smoking.
Not the blood pressure spikes or the way the top of my mouth always felt like it needed to be cleaned with windex; I miss the kinship.
I miss the empathy of one needy person sympathizing with another. There is a smoker’s code. Any smoker can ask any other known smoker at any time for a cigarette or the use of a lighter, and it will be shared, if available. (This is possibly untrue in prison where Shawshank Redemption instructs me cigarettes are actually a currency and treated differently as a result). If the smoker can not supply the requested smoke or light, they will often go out of their way to connect the smokeless soul to another smoker to meet the need. A smoker understands what it is like to escape from a stressful day at work for 15 minutes for a chemical boost only to find the pack empty. A smoker can feel the frustration of stopping at a gas station on a road trip and realizing when carded that your ID is at home. A smoker has shown up to be the wingman and needed more than the tail end of their pack to be able to keep making small talk with the cute couple’s awkward roommate. A smoker has been there.
I miss how smoking with a group of people (even if you don’t know them) creates an impromptu therapy group. Something about knowing you all have this same primal dependency seems to be equalizing in some way. It is somehow safe to say into the quiet between puffs that you had a fight with your family the night before or that your girlfriend just isn’t inspiring you anymore or that your boss is unfair and you’re worried about your job. I have accepted the advice and concern of people smoking next to me whom it would never have occurred to me to even tell anything about myself to, let alone actually share frustration or struggle with. Maybe the fact that we all know on some level that the habit is a liability at best and a weakness at worst makes us (when smoking) willing to accept the imperfections of others a little more gently?
In my experience Smokers will often own their weakness. They frequently discuss their desire to quit (“again”) while smoking together. Fish story lore springs up about how long the last smokefree streak stretched out. “I was doing great until” one-up-manship gets bantered about. You want to hear a tale of woe, listen to smokers tell each other about the crisis that kicked them back off the wagon – and every other smoker there feels their pain. Even the “I’m not even going to bother to try to quit!” die hards tend to be sympathetic to the folks trying to. I’ve heard them be the first to say “good for you, you keep with it” before drawing in deeply.
I’m sure there are also plenty of stubborn, cantankerous smokers who were never a wingman, don’t give a flying fart about your problems and think trying to quit smoking is for sissies. But tonight I found myself wondering why being around a group of “fellow sinners” at church isn’t more like sitting around with fellow smokers.
I don’t say this because I think I should take up smoking again. I say it because of 3 things that happened this week: 1) I hid in a church bathroom crying because the people near me in the service looked at me like I was stomping on the baby jesus in the manger when the cell phone that I genuinely believed I had turned off rang for about 2 seconds during the service. 2) People like me may not have been losing enough sleep over whether or not God actually loves us as people in spite of how broken and messy we are, so Mark Driscoll put a reminder back out into the ether that God does, indeed, hate some people. I spent a couple hours staring at the ceiling crying about that reminder and feeling utterly alone. 3) Tonight a woman I don’t know, with a slightly panicky and very hopeful look in her eyes, asked me if I had a cigarette and we shared a small moment of bonding in the chilly fall air while I told her I didn’t, but I knew someone who might be able to help her and pointed her in the right direction. As I turned and walked away I was picturing them (they were virtual strangers to each other) smoking together and I muttered to myself, “christians should be more like smokers” before I even considered it.
So, I sat in the parking lot in my jeep, in the dark, and shed a few more tears and realized that I meant it. Of all people, the ones that say they know they have done wrong and that they’re grateful god forgave them (however they explain the how/why) have reason to be gentle with others who also find themselves to be imperfect and in need of a god.
Now, I know the church is full of very humany humans with very human reactions to the humanity in the world around them. If there’s a god who loves and can indeed forgive, then I know I shouldn’t judge him by the scowlers or Mark Driscolls of his group. Tonight I’m just acutely aware that I’d like to be sitting around with hoi polloi who empathize with my weaknesses, toss their problems out openly just to be able to share their stress with someone, and are willing to sit comfortably in companionable silence.
I’m wondering if maybe we could have a picnic table outside at all churches. That way the speaker could announce a 15 minute break and the smokers (closet or otherwise) could head out there. As for me, I may just arrive late and head directly to the smoking section. If you see me there some Sunday, come on over. I’ll lend you a light.