Every once in a while I have to remind myself to be compassionate. I am easily annoyed by relatively insignificant things, and if I’m not careful I find myself reacting towards strangers with loathing and disgust, and when this spiral goes too far towards bitterness I try to put myself in the other person’s shoes and understand the circumstances that led to their choices and whether I’d make similar choices in similar circumstances. I try to imagine what it feels like to be someone else.
Even in America, smokers annoyed me. When I’d be waiting for a bus and someone else on line would start smoking, I’d have two options: one, step out of line (and lose my chance at getting a seat on the bus) or two, breathe in the second hand smoke. This infuriated me. It would always be one person, as opposed to several, who would light up – everyone else either didn’t smoke, or was considerate enough not to do so around strangers waiting for a bus. I used to mutter, under my breath: “fucking savages”.
In Georgia there seem to be more smokers to irritate me and fewer social and legal restrictions on where people can smoke. I complained about this several years ago and it seemed to annoy people, so I’ve shut up about it since, but the amount of smoking in Georgia continues to be a real inconvenience to me, and most of the time when I catch a whiff of someone’s cigarette smoke, or when I can’t go into a restaurant or marshutka because it’s too smoky, I still mutter, under my breath: “fucking savages”.
Today I had to remind myself: it’s not like smokers want to be addicted to cigarettes, right? I mean, if you’re 60 years old, dying of lung cancer or even just struggling to walk up a flight of stairs because of emphysema, don’t you think to yourself, “I wish I could take back all of those cigarettes”? Yes, my attempt at compassion involves visualizing the suffering and death of my tormentors; perhaps this is why I prefer to just not think about it.
In any case I realized that in Georgia the answer to that hypothetical is probably “no”. It’s probably the case that many people here would sacrifice their health or life as an elderly person for the benefits that smoking gives them. Specifically, if you’re in Georgia and you aren’t a smoker, what do you do when you are with friends and all your friends are smoking? What do you do when you’re waiting for that bus and everyone who is waiting with you is smoking? Basically, you take a deep breath and inhale the deadly fumes. I think if you gave Georgians the choice between being somewhat of a shut-in, like I am, and going out and having fun with their friends on a regular basis, Georgians would say that the social life is worth the cost in eventual health problems. Honestly, if I weren’t asthmatic, I might say the same.
This is not to say that every Georgian smokes (and let’s just admit we’re talking about men, here – Georgian women very rarely smoke, at least in public). There are lots of Georgian men who don’t smoke, but you don’t notice them that often, because they tend to avoid situations where there is lots of smoking going on. They’re working, or at home with their families, or playing sports, rather than going to bars or standing around on the corner. I don’t think smoking gives Georgian men any real prestige, and a lot of the men I know here who don’t smoke are quite proud of their abstention (for instance, basically none of the men in my wife’s family smoke). I think that the idea that Georgia has a smoking culture is driven by the fact that the Georgians who smoke are the most visible and in your face, and that they don’t observe social or legal rules (or there aren’t any) about not subjecting others to their nasty habit.
And this is why there should be social and legal rules about smoking, and why these rules should be enforced. It’s considered rude in Georgia to complain about others who are smoking. This should be reversed: smoking in front of non-smokers (especially children!!) should be considered rude and the people who do it should be shamed. All of the non-smokers – who are quietly tolerant of the fact that society punishes them for their clean living – deserve the prestige of being recognized, and the equal access to public accommodations. Non-smokers shouldn’t have to figure out ways around taking a marshutka because they know driver will smoke. Non-smokers shouldn’t have to sit in special booths outside the restaurant because the inside is so smoky you can barely taste your food.
And if smoking were not the norm, and if public accommodations were free from smoke, that would change the end-of-life calculus. No longer would people have to choose between a vibrant public social life and a healthy, long life. No longer would people get addicted to cigarettes just from hanging out with their friends. If we have any compassion for smokers, we have to recognize that the circumstances that cause them to take up this dangerous and disgusting habit are not of their own making, and that we as a society have the power – and, I would argue, the obligation – to change those circumstances and enable people to make better choices.
If people feel the need to smoke in their houses, their cars, their private booths at the restaurant, so be it. But shield the next generation – my son’s generation – from having to choose from the same substandard options you had to choose from. Don’t fill shared, public spaces with second-hand smoke. Empower the non-smokers – Georgia’s silent majority – to provide a better life for future generations.