I’ve smoked a cigarette exactly one time in my life.
I didn’t do it because of social pressure – I was alone at the time, and to be honest social pressure to be stupid has rarely worked on me. I’m pretty good at telling friends when they’re being stupid, and not joining in. I don’t know if this is because I enjoy being a jerk, or if I see myself as so much of an outsider that standing on the outside doesn’t make me feel isolated – it just affirms what I already know about myself. It feeds my impression I’m pretty much the greatest person on earth, and the greatest person on earth isn’t going to get along with a lot of people, because they’re all going to be jealous. The greatest person on earth doesn’t smoke a cigarette because he’s afraid of being made fun of, or afraid of losing friends – he does it because he’s curious, and he makes a decision.
Anyway, I pilfered the cigarette from the set of a play that I was helping with. I saw the pack of cigarettes on the prop table, grabbed one that looked like it hadn’t been chewed on by anyone, and stuck it in my pocket.
Later I bought a lighter at Wal-Mart, and hid in a strand of trees in a park to light up. I extinguished the cigarette after puffing on it a few times – I didn’t get it. Why do people spend so much money and give themselves lung cancer for this? Because people are duller and stupider than I, clearly. I stuck the cigarette in a convent knothole, and walked away, never to smoke again.
People are stupid, I thought.
I tend to think a lot about what other people are thinking. The reason I didn’t just go and buy a pack of cigarettes was because I had an image to keep up – the greatest person on earth wasn’t about to be seen buying cigarettes. I was afraid of what other people might think, even if I didn’t know them, so I didn’t buy any. I stole one, and I knew that I couldn’t start smoking (or drinking heavily, or getting bad grades) because I was simply too terrified of people’s thoughts.
This gave me great comfort, because I knew for sure that I wouldn’t mess up too badly. My fear of other people’s thoughts and opinions was a protective device, keeping me comfortably in a state of fear, making sure that the bad didn’t get in. I didn’t have to actually be a good person: if I was scared enough, people would ensure that I acted right.
Of course, this system began to break down. It hindsight, it wasn’t a very good system, because different people believe different things about how I should live my life, and I didn’t even know what they thought – I was just making my best guess about how the cashier was judging my actions, and it’s hard to be accurate.
I started wearing headphones when I shopped, clearly conveying the message that I didn’t care too much about the people around me, so they really shouldn’t care about me.
I started ruthlessly analyzing everything in my cart, and shopping soon became very stressful, because what if someone sees the beef jerky I’m buying, and mistakes me for an ignorant beef-eating slob? I hide the beef jerky under the rice.
What if they see the Kombucha in my cart and think it’s actually soda? I’m not the type of person who drinks soda! I rotate the Kombucha bottle until the label is clearly visible.
What if someone sees the wine I have in my cart, and assumes that I’m going to go home and drink it all myself? I briefly consider stuffing the wine down my pants, but that would look even more suspicious.
Everything became stressful, because the imagined thoughts of all the people around me had turned on me: they had ceased to be a protector against my worst self, and had began attacking me.
Relying on other people to keep you in line is a bad long-term strategy, it turns out.
I haven’t solved this problem, although I fear other people’s thoughts much less than I have in the past. If you deal with this type of stuff, my only suggestion is this: start the process of becoming a better person, not just acting the part because people are watching.
In short: don’t steal the cigarettes, don’t buy the cigarettes.