[Francis Bacon, by Lucian Freud]
I am dragged along by a strange new force. Desire and reason are pulling in different directions. I see the right way and approve it, but follow the wrong.
--Ovid, The Metamorphosis (qtd. Jonathan Haidt)
About two months ago, my girlfriend and I broke up and I picked up smoking after five years.
I must have forgotten how long life actually is. Because I believed I would never pick up another cigarette again. During my five year stint of no drugs, no alcohol, and no cigarettes, I also practiced meditation daily and didn't eat meat. And I exercised six days a week.
There was a beautiful discipline to my life. My body was trim, my mind was clear, my goals were within reach.
I look back at the era of my rigid self-control and wonder. I wonder if I was happier living in a healthy body. I wonder if I truly appreciated my health.
I remember the lifestyle demanded an inordinate amount of work and conscious effort to maintain. But there was also an energy that helped me along, a natural stimulant my body must have been producing to keep me so focused.
Now I'm chain-smoking, staying up late, and eating poorly. I'm also less concerned about having the occasional drink or the occasional joint. What happened? Where did I stumble and fall?
It seems I covered the territory of the sober, the nicotine-free, and salubrious, and now I'm flirting with the other side. Maybe life is better--or easier--caffeine-addled, ignorant, and undisciplined.
Things must have not been so wonderful before; otherwise I never would have forsaken my wholesome lifestyle. There must have been some boredom or irritation with that life to dissuade me . . .
In my current wasteland of petty vices, I find no shortage of problems. But that also seems to be the advantage. My physical concerns take up so much of my attention that I have little time to ruminate on emotional setbacks.
This question of the divided self has been revolving in my mind. Only because the division is so painfully obvious when you want to quit smoking.
Last night, I laid in bed, after having my last cigarette of the day.
"That's it. You're done. You-are-done. No more smoking!"
And it made perfect sense at the time because my lungs practically felt like I was experiencing the onset of some mild form of emphysema; short, shallow breaths, the body convulses with cold-like symptoms.
I got out of bed and put the Nicorette gum I'd bought two weeks ago on the dresser drawer. This pantomime of quitting, these small, ineffectual acts--I'm familiar with. I've thrown away a dozen ashtrays and several full packs of cigarettes before pathetically searching the garbage to recover them.
Morning came, and of course I remembered last night's ordeal, wanting desperately to quit. The gravitas! The suffering! I recalled it but I walked past it as one walks past a store window on their way to work.
How could it be happening again? I'm lighting a cigarette, I'm inhaling, I'm even enjoying the damn thing in a sick sort of way.
But my mind--changed. It must have. It changed over night. Because in the morning, I didn't feel the same emotion, the same devotion to quitting, the same visceral disgust.
Instead, in that languid mood of not caring, I drifted to the garage, the place where I go every morning to smoke a cigarette.
It makes me curious that we have these unconscious desires which are essentially controlling us. In The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt compares the self to a rider on the back of an elephant. He writes:
The image that I came up with for myself, as I marveled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. Im holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesnt have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, Im no match for him.
But the power to change your life is real. I know it's real because I've changed my life before. I used to be a drug addict.
But life is long and nothing stays forever. We may think we will never waver, that we will stay married until death, that we'll never go back to smoking or overeating or compulsive shopping.
But we do. To waver is only human. And these decisions to quit, to change, to reform, to improve, I want to embrace them--and more than that--I want to seriously carry them out and change my life.
But it is perhaps wiser to have the knowledge that someday, no matter what changes I do happen to make, I'll have to start at the beginning again.
My Response to a Reader's Comments (about this essay)