THE BLOG

Sympathy for the Devil: Would A Wise Man Smoke?

22/10/2015 18:15 BST | Updated 21/10/2016 10:12 BST

Two friends died recently- one by drowning, the other by a massive stroke- and if there is any blessing in either of their demises, it certainly must be that both were swift. I watched my parents linger in ill health for years, at the mercy of doctors who plied them with legal drugs by the truckload. In my view, patients become enslaved by their physicians who cannot promise a return to full health but instead torment their charges by offering a salvo for each individual symptom in the hope that some small improvement, usually by trial and error, is enough to dupe the invalid into thinking they are actually getting better.

There is no doubt that doctors perform amazing feats on a daily basis and to save the life of another is surely the most commendable act of all but the opposite is also true. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) an average of fifty people die in the US every day from overdosing on prescription painkillers. And also according to the WHO more people abuse prescription drugs worldwide than either cocaine or heroin combined. We all know someone who as soon as they catch a bad cold or flu, complains about the doctor NOT giving them antibiotics. We suddenly become health experts when we visit the doctor fully versed in a) what's wrong with us and b) exactly the medication we need. Worse yet, it appears to be a badge of honour to actually have some physical ailment. An underactive thyroid, ovarian cysts, allergies, Crohn's Disease, etc. I'm not belittling anyone who is suffering but the prevalence of sickness and being ill has, in my view, replaced self-awareness. I know of one lady who speaks literally of nothing else apart from her and her family's visits to the doctor. Not just her immediate family mind you, but cousins, aunts, uncles too. I also know of another lady who self-medicates and is the defacto physician to her friends and family always handing out prescription medication. Hypochondria and self-medication can be a deadly combination (as attested by the WHO statistic above).

Voltaire summed up our obsession with doctors and sickness thus:

A physician is one who pours drugs of which he knows little into a body of which he knows less.

I would not only concur with the subliminal message of knowing ourselves less but add to that our fear of dying. I've been thinking a lot about smoking recently, for example. When I turned forty I felt more and more repulsed by my nicotine habit. Why? Because my father was gravely ill and I felt that anything that would hasten me to my grave was a bad thing. My father then died and I kicked the habit overnight. I literally did not even suffer withdrawal, such was my disgust for smoking.

Then I turned fifty and my mother died and around the same time friends and acquaintances also began to keel over. Suddenly not smoking began to seem kind of irrelevant and pointless. And having to choose between years of suffering and losing all of one's dignity by a slow, painful death (as was the case of my parents), dropping dead suddenly of a nicotine-induced stroke or heart attack began to look like a better option altogether.

Of course people will be jumping up and down the country screeching that smoking kills and only a severe dimwit would inhale but I can also attest to this- cigarettes were friends to me, a support when my life was pretty sad and miserable. And as an artist, cigarettes have helped me write and paint. The absolute in the non-smoking argument is that cigarettes kill. Well, walking my hound along a busy road today, my lungs weren't exactly feeling fine and dandy as I consumed vast amounts of diesel and petrol fumes. In fact I felt positively ill. I felt as sick as if the car exhaust pipes were actually stuck in my throat. Yet we can't live without our cars and therefore try not to think about what those fumes are really doing to us. Mobile phone technology, electrical pylons, microwaves, the list goes on. There are so many proven and unproven risks to our health that if we were to dwell on them we could go stark, raving mad. In order to avoid the hidden threats of our modern-day lifestyle we would have to retreat to a cave and deprogram our brains completely (and have the courage to admit that our lust for convenience is wholly to blame).

But what about self-awareness? Can a smoker knowing the risks be self aware? There's a very interesting philosophical debate to be had in the response to that question. I would argue that knowing oneself is of greater value than having the power (or ability to choose). Our actions invariably mirror a fear linked to dying. We don't smoke because we don't want to get cancer (and die). A wise man does not suffer fear of anything. If one makes choices based on one's life journey towards the sole purpose of becoming a better human being, then within that context, let us ask the question again. Can a smoker be truly self aware? Smoking has been demonised to such a point that smokers are persona non grata everywhere. Someone once said that they decided to believe in neither God nor the Devil because they knew that they'd probably get on better with the Devil and like him more. That person was truly self-aware. And I bet he smoked too (he did).

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Photo copyright S. van Dalen