I haven’t smoked a cigarette in years, but I still remember the “companionship” they provided. Quitting was a huge challenge and it took a long time to unravel the behaviors that accompanied the habit. The entire process of digging around in my purse or pockets to unearth a pack and matches followed by extracting one and inhaling that first deep breath took time. It could be dramatic. It took my full focus, if I chose.
Whether waiting for a friend or the bus or your meal, lighting up almost meant that you weren’t alone…you had an instant companion. Wouldn’t leave home without them. You could busy your hands with the act and your thoughts could wander or even focus on the progress of your cigarette as it burned down. It afforded instant, albeit unhealthy entertainment and even a conversation starter if someone needed a light. More than anything, I suppose it supplied either an invitation to connect or a smoky barrier to engagement.
Fortunately those days are long gone and smokers are relegated to specific areas that are far from the rest of us. It’s no longer an activity to be copied or glamorized but I wonder if we haven’t taken on a new way to never be alone and simultaneously occupied. Last week I was waiting for a friend at a large bar/restaurant and rather than cigarettes, almost everyone had a cell phone in hand or resting in front of them, ready to be united in action. It’s not part of the place setting! Even people seated together at tables were often on their phones rather than conversing with their companions. I saw one person dining solo with a book and it was so out of the ordinary that he looked like a throwback to another era.
So, what’s really happening? Can we never be still and present in the moment either by ourselves or with other people? Is the cell phone an impediment to communication or is it just another tool that we’ve added to a potentially unhealthy set of behaviors or is that a grim and superficial observation? Actually, the whole scene was a reminder to me to check-in with myself and monitor how to make better use of my alone time. Reaching for the phone as a distraction from being slightly uncomfortable is certainly preferable to grabbing a cigarette, but in those moments, it’s also an opportunity to just be.