“I have always tried my best to let wisdom guide my thoughts and actions. I said to myself, ‘I am determined to be wise.’ But it didn’t work. Wisdom is always distant and difficult to find. I searched everywhere, determined to find wisdom and to understand the reason for things. I was determined to prove to myself that wickedness is stupid and that foolishness is madness.”
― Ecclesiastes 7.23-25
It’s amazing how much of our lives are influenced by the smallest of occurrences.
A year ago, on a Friday, I went out with a group of friends to go dancing in the Marina. I had been in San Francisco for a month, working at VMware and living at Startuphouse, and I was by all accounts the happiest I had been up until that point in my life. The Australians were still in town, so every weekend we explored a different part of the city, met about a zillion people, and had an awesome time.
The Marina was where all the “bros” were supposed to hang out, so I wasn’t expecting a lot. I ended up having a fantastic time—for a certain kind of outing, the Marina is actually pretty great. We were at a dance club halfway through the night and I stepped out with my friend Mochine to have a cigarette.
Addiction & Ignorance
I started smoking cigarettes when I was 16. Lots of people say they don’t remember why they started, but I remember very clearly. Everyone that I knew unanimously agreed that cigarettes were the most evil, harmful thing in existence, and just one puff would get you addicted for life. Addicted for life! Can you believe that? You’re telling me, my 16-year-old mind says, there exists a chemical that is so in control of your brain it will cause you to pay money to kill yourself with absolutely no hope of escape, and that this lasts for your entire life?
I am not sure if there actually was a global conspiracy to get me to take up smoking, but I can tell you the most surefire way to get an arrogant 16-year-old to light up is to tell him that one puff of the stuff his will render him permanently incapable of making rational decisions and to avoid it at all costs. Well, maybe those other 16 year olds, but Chris Johnson is going to take that one puff and prove to you all that he is in control, that he makes the decisions around here, that no stupid chemical is going to take control of his life.
Anyway, back to San Francisco.
We were all outside on the curb smoking, I was fairly drunk at this point, when another friend of mine, who we’ll call Jack, joins us in the circle. He turns to me. “I thought you said you quit smoking, mate? What happened?” Since moving to San Francisco I had been thinking a lot about addiction, and I had stopped buying packs a couple of weeks before in an attempt to transition into fully-fledged quitting-hood. “Well, yeah, I’ve still quit smoking, but that doesn’t mean I can’t have a cigarette when I’m drunk. Plenty of people smoke when they’re drunk. I can handle it.”
He looked at me for a second and then said, plainly, “That is the biggest load of shit I have ever heard. You either do or you don’t—there’s no such thing as ‘just cigarettes while drunk’.” I started to get annoyed. People had been giving me crap all summer for smoking, and some combination of drunkenness, youthful arrogance, and irritation led me to say the following words: “What the hell do you know, man? Answer me honestly. Have you ever been addicted to anything in your life?”
He paused for a second, looked me dead in the eyes, and said: “Well, you know, nothing at all really, except for that whole heroin thing.”
There is a unique feeling you experience when the weight of your ignorance, suspended in the air like an ACME piano in an old cartoon, comes crashing down on you with the full weight of its inevitable force. It’s the feeling of suddenly realizing the universe is much, much bigger than you are, and the space of everything you know amounts to nothing more than an infinitely small “you are here” dot on the Hubble Deep Field image of human experience.
I stood there dumbfounded for about half a second, and then immediately flicked my cigarette onto the street. We watched it sputter and die. “You think that’s going to impress me or something? Look, mate. The choice is easy. Just make it.” After a couple of minutes, the circle dissipated, everyone went back inside, and I stood there looking at the street for a little while before joining the others.
One Incontrovertibly Good Thing
Fast forward to four months ago. I was back in San Francisco, this time for real, and by all accounts I was the most miserable I have ever been. I was in a foreign city, half a country away from home, starting full-time work for the first time. My last “startup” had become an utter train-wreck under my leadership and ended up failing horribly. I got kicked out of my honors program for bad grades, which led me to drop out of college. I was working 60 hours a week at my new job and failing horribly at it.
To top it all off, I was having a hard time making new friends, and everything kind of worked together to reinforce the fact that I was pretty much terrible at everything. I kept telling myself that, judging by all available evidence, I was simply a complete failure as a human being. Depression is like the Johnny Cochran of mental demons, and no matter what angle I looked at it, the gloves totally fucking fit.
Well, except for one thing. I had quit smoking cigarettes. At times, I actually went through and tallied up all the pros and cons of my accomplishments of the last year, mainly to convince myself that everything I had done could be construed as a con. Everything, except for this one tiny thing. It is kind of funny, in retrospect, but I remember being distinctly annoyed by this thought. “Yeah, well, who gives a shit, I quit smoking, whoop-de-do.”
But it stuck with me. And eventually I let myself admit that, yes, I had made one positive change in my life, and despite all of my other failings, I did do something tangibly good for myself. When I emerged from my extremely-long-period-of-
The thing is, though—it wasn’t me. Not directly. I have no idea what might have happened if it wasn’t for Jack’s timely intervention that night. It’s possible I would have eventually quit, sure, but the fact that I quit then had very little to do with me and a lot to do with forces outside of my control.
We tend to think that our lives move monotonically in a certain direction, which can be controlled and steered depending on our own decisions and our environment. In reality, our position in life is more like a Markov chain—largely independent of where we have been or what we have accomplished previously. At any time, the delicate balance of delusions called your psychology can suddenly shift in violent and unexpected directions. And when that occurs, you will find that much of what you take for granted and unchangeable—mainly, yourself, and your perceived notions of yourself—will be of little use to you. Tout n’est que vent, que fumee. It’s times like those where it pays to have a little faith.
It has been an entire year since I smoked a cigarette.
Man. That feels really good to say.
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Chris Johnson is a 23-year-old living in San Francisco, CA. He is a glorified ape that builds websites, philosophizes about humanity, and generally stumbles around Planet Earth making a fool of himself. To read his musings and see his work, visit his website.