Day Fifty Two

Days Without a Cigarette: 51.6875
Days Without Nicotine: 0
Dollars Saved: $162.21
Time Saved: 73 hours, 14 minutes

They say that you can’t quit smoking if you don’t really want to. And I suppose that’s true, but mostly because it’s tautological. The act of quitting smoking (at least as near as I can tell) is a long series of asking yourself, “but do you really want a cigarette?” and managing to say ‘no’ every time. So of course you can’t do it if you don’t want to do it. But this is often presented as something unique to giving up nicotine or to severing an addiction. It’s actually just one of those things that’s true of all the hard stuff. You can’t learn to play violin if you don’t really want to either.

So what purpose does this observation serve?

I think it’s often – or perhaps even exclusively – deployed as an excuse. It’s an excuse that smokers offer their loved ones, it’s an excuse loved ones offer their smokers, and it’s an excuse that smokers offer themselves. And in all of these instances, it serves a slightly different purpose.

When a smoker offers it to their loved ones, it’s usually an excuse not to quit. As a smoker, you’re likely to be the recipient of a “if you loved me” challenge from your significant other at some point. And if you never get that, you might issue one to yourself upon having kids. I know a lot of smokers who had their first kid and plagued themselves with the thought that if they really loved that kid they’d quit smoking and (a) be around longer, (b) set a better example for their child, and (c) spend that money on them.

But alas, for most of us, the answer to “do you love me enough to quit smoking?” is no, regardless of who’s asking or how much they love you. Love and willpower are entirely different things and neither is a measure of the other. So the “you have to really want to quit” thing is often deployed as an armor against these challenges. “I can’t quit smoking for you, my wife/husband/girlfriend/boyfriend/partner/child/whatever, I could only do it for me.”

When a loved one offers it to their smoker, it’s usually just as bad. People often hear this kind of thing when they fail. If you try to quit and you fail at it, the people around you might, with the best of intentions, start gift wrapping this excuse for you. This is doubly true if you’re a person who has a long line of failed attempts behind you.

This is normally offered up as a source of hope. You failed this time because you didn’t really want it. You just medium wanted it. There are units of ‘wanting’, and you simply haven’t accumulated enough of them yet, but hopefully next time you’ll have saved up a few more. But you won’t. It doesn’t work like that. Yes, you can want something more or less, but the whole trick to quit smoking is making yourself want to quit more than you want to smoke. If you tried to quit and failed, you obviously didn’t want it enough.

So the smoker falls off the wagon and this excuse catches them. They might even be tempted to curl up inside it for a while and pretend that there’s a temporal aspect to this that they have no control over. They tried out quitting, they didn’t have sufficient “want” in their “desire bar”, and now they’ve gotta wait around while it builds back up. And that’s dangerous because that’s not how it fucking works. If you failed in your attempt to quit, there’s something you did wrong along the way. You can try to find ways of addressing it for the next time you try, but just ‘wanting harder’ isn’t gonna move the needle.

But all of that pales in comparison to the danger that excuse can have when smokers tell it to themselves. It’s usually an excuse to postpone quitting to some indefinite time in the future or to pin the blame for the latest failure on some intangible, unquantifiable deficiency. And ultimately it relies on the misconception that ‘want’ is something that happens to you; as though some cloud of free floating ambition is just waiting for you to stumble through it and galvanize yourself for the next attempt.

So sure, you have to want to quit smoking to quit smoking. The same is generally true of turning your head to the left. And when a thing is entirely in your power to obtain, ‘wanting sufficiently’ and ‘doing’ are synonyms.

Published by Noah Lugeons

Noah Lugeons co-hosts a bunch of podcasts: The Scathing Atheist, God Awful Movies, The Skepticrat, and Citation Needed

One thought on “Day Fifty Two

  1. Yup. Same with weight loss or getting out of a bad relationship, or just about any other repetitious behavior that creates certain chemicals in the brain/body (although addiction to a substance is a whole extra level). I sort of think that “willpower” is just a way to induce guilt or feel proud (and I kinda wanna hear how your singing voice sounds now, just so you know.)


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