I found out on my dad's birthday that my Second Uncle ― my dad's second older brother ― was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. (How many stages of cancer are there?) My uncle's family had been keeping things quiet for a while now; they didn't want to alarm anyone. The doctors gave him 3-6 months.
My Second Uncle had been smoking for more than 40 years. He quitted smoking a few years ago, finally. But it was too late: Four decades of smoke caught up with him.
Some of my close friends are habitual smokers. When we hang out, they usually light up while we chat. I was a social smoker, but I never took to the habit. My last cigarette was six years ago.
With lung cancer so close to home, I find myself suddenly aversed to being around my friends when they light up. I was out with Boo last week, and when I told her about my uncle's lung cancer, I could see in her eyes how fast she was losing interest in the subject. It's like her mind just shifted to avoid looking at something uncomfortable.
Our mind is a great filter, and we often block out the messages that are uncomfortable or challenge who we are. Boo probably heard the anti-smoking cancer scare messages a million times over. (Afterall, the cancer warnings are printed on every cigarette packs. We learned to be desensitized to the messages.) You can just see how she switched into a defensive mode, while trying to remind sensitive to our friendship.
The usual defense: that we would die anyway, and if we were to be hit by a bus tomorrow, this cigarette wouldn't matter. Or, they intend to die young anyway, so it doesn't matter.
I did not press the issue any further. I have stated my preference not to have cigarette smoke around me, but they are not going to quit smoking because of me either. If we are to remain friends, we will have to compromise on this.
Often we are caught in the situations where we wish the best for our friends and family ― and we hope to persuade them to change. Maybe you want them to quit smoking, to exercise more, or to adopt a healthier diet. Or maybe you want your friend to quit a relationship that is obviously toxic and wearing down their self-respect.
But sometimes we err through misguided love. Often we believe, with the self-righteousness of our ego, that because we love them, we have a right to intervention. I believe in intervention when it is necessary ― I do believe in tough love. But tough love should only be used for extreme circumstances, like when a life is at stake, for example. At the end of the day, we have to respect the right to Free Will.
Often, we make the mistake of trying to force our choices onto someone else, justifying our actions with love. We fail to see how this is itself a form of violence. We are taking away their right to decide for themselves, because their choices are different from ours. Sometimes things seem so clear-cut ― our friends need to quit drugs, quit over-spending to help themselves. If they can't help themselves then we must intervene. But where do you draw the line: do we have the right to pick who they date, who they marry? Are we willing to relinquish that kind of control of our own lives?
Ultimately, we have to realise everyone has the right to their own karma, and things are not always as we want them to be. Yet paradoxically, we still need to strive for the best, trusting in karma to unfold on its own. I am still having trouble with this process of surrender and right effort.
Boo and my other smoker friends will quit smoking when they want to ― it is their choice to make. That doesn't mean I'm going to stop trying to persuade them to quit though. Just that I need to do it from a place of understanding and respect, and not as a self-righteous yogi sticking it in their face.
Earlier this year, Agnes, one of my smoker friends, asked me what I wanted for my birthday. I thought about it for a while but I realise I didn't need anything.
"But is there anything I could get you anyway?" Agnes asked again. She seemed almost disappointed that she couldn't get me anything for my birthday; it was sweet.
Then I grinned, and I asked her, "Would you like to quit smoking for my birthday?" It was like a game we played. We both knew the answer, but I was asking anyway. Because I would gladly give up a lifetime of birthday gifts if Agnes would quit.
Agnes grinned back at me, and then she exclaimed, "I love you too, La!" She then scampered off.
What was wonderful about Agnes is that while she would never quit smoking because of me, she understood that I love her enough to wish for her to quit. That's why we're going to continue dancing this Cigarette-Tango. No matter how futile it seems, I'm still going to try to persuade them to quit.