Renunciations

For the better part of last month, my brain wouldn’t work. Well, maybe that’s putting it a little strongly. Stout, loyal organ that it is, it went on functioning at a primitive level, linking names and faces, recognizing days of the week and colors, reminding me when it was time to use the bathroom and whether convention dictated I should stand or sit when I did. It also went on generating SEO copy at its accustomed rate. But when it came to the intricacies of real writing — building arguments, extending metaphors, affecting wistful irony — it might as well have been Pamela Geller’s brain. Gay Boy Scouts and our new saints deserve better.

It had its reasons, though. Or rather, I did. At the top of the month, I decided to quit smoking, cold turkey. After about 12 hours without a cigarette, I slipped into a state of fugue. When I came to, I realized I had half a tin of Kodiak stuffed in my lip, and was sniping butts from the ashtray at the post office across the street. This convinced me to go slowly, and over the next two weeks I cut my daily intake from 40 cigarettes to 20, from 20 to 15, from 15 to 11, and finally, from 11 to eight. Eight per day is where I’m standing currently. Representing a reduction of 80%, it’s not a bad moral sandbar.

And so, for the past several weeks, my body and brain have been learning to live without nicotine and all the lovely neurotransmitters it contains — dopamine and its cozy glow, norepinephrine and its bracing buzz. But onto this grind, I imposed one further condition: I promised myself I wouldn’t gain any weight. In fact, I swore I’d drop from 170 to 160. Don’t get me talking about how I staggered through each day mourning so many familiar comforts –with my flair for drama, I’d sound like I’d sailed with Shackleton. The question is why I bothered, and the answer should serve as a cautionary tale for anyone who feels called to a life of asceticism.

1. I’m at my best when cowed. This whole multifront clean-living campaign began not with any inner moment of discernment but with an announcement that the property management company in charge of my apartment complex had declared the place smoke-free. Lacking both the cash to move and the nerve to double-deal, I had no choice but to submit. St. Thomas was right: the law can teach virtue through coercion. Smug bastard.

2. I demand cookies. For me, virtue is never, as we’ve seen, an end in itself. Along with external compulsion, its cultivation requires an external reward. Trading the pleasures of smoking for some amorphous notion of good health always seemed prissy, Ned Flanderseque. It took the promise of an extra $240 — roughly the cost of six cartons of Pall Mall 100s at the local Pima reservation — in monthly discretionary spending money to sweeten the pot and tip the scales in arete’s favor.

3. Shame’s also a winner. Very recently — only in the past couple of years, it seems — “shame” has returned to common usage, especially in verb form. Armed with social media and moral umbrage, we can shame a slut, a creep, or anyone else who incurs our disapproval. Lest we forget, it’s also a noun, a thing, that sense of personal inadequacy we feel when society discovers we’ve fallen short of its prescriptions. Threaten me with it, even indirectly, it seems, and I’m your huckleberry.

According to a very recent Gallup poll, 67% of adults consider smoking a “very serious” problem. By my lights, nobody smokes anymore, or at any rate, nobody who looks as though he matters. A survey commissioned by the Philip Morris tobacco company reports that lower-class panelists smoke more than upper-class panelists. Indeed, at the Pima res, few of my fellow patrons, judging by their bumper stickers, have changed cars since the 2004 elections. An online moral entrepreneur who calls himself The Quit Smoking Guy makes the implications explicit, declaring, “SMOKING HABIT MAKES SECOND CLASS PEOPLE.” Blame it on the cigarettes, but I suddenly find myself too tired to argue.

Only the mob — having taken up residence in my head — won’t concede its approval so easily. According to the same poll, 81% of adults find obesity just as serious as smoking. Although David Engber challenges this perception’s factual basis, obesity’s actual danger is well beside the point. Anyone who’s lived on the Upper West Side, or even strolled around Scottsdale Fashion Square, can have no doubt what body type so-called first-class people prefer. Not wishing to swap one shame for another, I saw no alternative to doubling down on self-denial.

The punch line, I guess, is that it worked. Only a few days after cutting my tar so drastically, my lungs opened up to the point where I was able to shave more than a minute off my 5K. If you can grab your runner’s high first thing in the morning, it can suppress your appetite almost as effectively as cigarettes, at least until noon or so. Once your six-pack starts shaping up visibly, spells of listlessness, paranoia, and magical thinking become much easier to bear

So, on balance, I’m now a little richer, a little more deserving of social approval, and a little more self-satisfied than I was the last time I wrote. What I’m not is any nearer the mindset of the saints, who gave up stuff with minimum of external prodding, simply because they believed God willed it. The fact is, I really hate pain and deprivation, and I really like being able to call off any program that requires me to inflict them on myself. I can call myself an unreasonable son of a bitch. I can call society a bunch of scolds and hypocrites. But I’d prefer not to lob any such insults in God’s teeth. At this point in my spiritual evolution, it seems better for our relationship for me to meditate on promises like “My yoke is light,” even if “yoke” sounds like “yolk” and makes me think of eggs.

But a morbid vulnerability to social pressure, a near-frantic regard for bella figura (literally or otherwise), isn’t the worst quality for a Catholic to have. In this week’s America, Drew Christiansen writes disapprovingly of widespread “passive nihilism,” according to which everything outside the enrichment and aggrandizement of one’s own self seems inauthentic and worthless. Well, I’m aggrandizing myself precisely so that I’ll appear more acceptable to others. It may not be right out of the catechism, but it’s very Victorian and 20th-century suburban. When has Christian civilization seen a higher pinnacle?

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