120825-3As a smoker, you probably haven’t thought of yourself as a health-nut, but, in a way, you are.  If you are not a smoker, surely, you haven’t thought of smokers as health-nuts.   And yet an argument can be made that a smoker is a health-nut.

(If you are a smoker, you are probably slightly intrigued and want to read on.  If, however, you are a non-smoker, let alone a public health official, you might be thinking: “What’s this nonsense?!  Is this guy serious?!”  I am and I ask that you set your judgment aside and take a moment to understand the phenomenology of your fellow human being who chooses to smoke.  (By the way, we – Pavel and Marla – don’t smoke.)  I realize I am making a very unpopular point but even unpopular points have to be made now and then.  Judgment of the unpopular is easy. Understanding of the unpopular is hard and requires an open mind. My goal is clinical: to validate in order to help.)

Let me explain.  One way of looking at ourselves is to say that we are a combination of body and mind.  Both body and mind are equally important halves of one human whole, right?  In theory, yes. In practice, no.  People differ in terms of what they value more.  Some value physical health over mental health.  Others place mental health over physical health. Both sets of priorities are existentially valid.

Indeed, who is to say that you’d do better with an unhealthy mind in a healthy body than with a healthy mind in an unhealthy body?  It’s a classic existential dilemma and whatever you decide is okay by us (Pavel and Marla).  We are clinical libertarians, and we feel that it’s simply nobody’s business to tell you what you should value more in your life, your body or your mind.

Thus, as a form of coping, smoking is an expression of mind-over-body values.  Indeed, when you choose to cope (which is mind-business), you are paying for your emotional wellbeing with the coin of your body.  In other words, just like your classic body-focused health-nut who gets up at dawn to run a 5k or drive out for an hour of bagram yoga, you too are going to extremes to assure your health – the health of your mind, that is.

As such, smoking is a coping extreme in which the short-term wellbeing of the mind is obtained at potentially grave long-term risks of the body.  But guess what!  This kind of extreme coping at the expense of the body is common.  Take any of the extreme sports, for example.  People risk body-health and even life itself just to get a mind-kick by climbing cliffs and jumping out of planes.

Let’s face it: as a civilization, not only are we constantly putting the wellbeing of the mind over the wellbeing of the body, we even worship this particular set of priorities.  Indeed, whether you join the military or become a cop or you go on a humanitarian relief mission into a war zone, you are essentially chasing mind-health, a fix of existential meaning at potentially life-threatening costs.  After all, pride, honor, a sense of accomplishment – these are all just forms of mental wellbeing.  And, as a society, we generally see nothing wrong with paying dearly for this kind of psychological health with the voucher of the body.

So coping-by-smoking is nothing other than a choice of psychological self-care at the expense of the body.  Is that dangerous (to your body)?  Sure it is.  But so is rock-climbing.  Are there other ways of coping?  Of course, there are.  But that’s not the point.  The point is that as a smoker, paying for your emotional wellbeing with your body, there is no need for you to second-guess your sanity.  You are doing what all of us are doing, in one form or another.  The only issue is that you are overpaying a bit.

(Of course, this is not an endorsement for smoking.  Just an attempt to humanize and validate the behavior of millions of rational people that choose to smoke.   We are not saying you should smoke.  Nor are we saying you should quit.  What you do with smoking and how you choose to cope is entirely up to you.  What we are saying is that, as humanistically-oriented clinicians, we see why you smoke and, yes, up to a point, it makes sense.)

Related: An Unofficial Apology to Smokers

Adapted from Smoke-Free Smoke Break: Stop Smoking Now with Mindfulness and Acceptance

Creative Commons License photo credit: my 2-dimensional world