I was a child when I started hating cigarettes.
Blame my dad. His smoking habit clung to him like a dirty, old coat. He said he hated it, but the only thing that could stop him from puffing was dipping snuff. I found that equally disgusting.
Over time, my disgust with dad’s smoking habit turned into a disgust with anyone who smoked cigarettes. It only got worse in college when I became a neurotic, Bible-thumping church cop who gratuitously looked for reasons to condemn people to hell.
And cigarettes were a sure-fire sign of a person who was flirting with the flames of eternal damnation.
It wasn’t just cigarettes though. The list of no-nos grew with my zealotry and included overeating, drinking (alcohol or excessive caffeine), cursing, celebrating Halloween, watching movies, and kissing outside of marriage (yes, you read that correctly).
It was maddening, but it was my “relationship with God” – the Religion of No. Notably absent was much compassion or love for the people I was willing to dry roast in hell. My top concern was getting them converted, getting them to agree with me, getting them to come to my church.
In my junior year of college, I started a small group Bible study that met in a nursing facility. The idea was for us to have Bible study and prayer and then visit with the residents. It was only mildly popular with the college students at my church – you know, being in a nursing facility and all.
I’m sure things have changed now, but at the time, the nursing home had a smoking area inside. One day, I was standing a few feet from the smoking area talking to a couple of the members of my group. I saw a heavy-set, white-haired, disheveled old woman park her wheelchair in the smoking area and pull out a cigarette.
I felt an uncharacteristic surge of compassion and thought, You know, if I were stuck in a nursing facility, I would probably want to smoke too.
I carried on my conversation with my church friends, but I was distracted by the sight of the feeble old woman.
She managed to get an unlit cigarette between her quivering lips, but she was having trouble getting her lighter to do more than spark. And even when she got the lighter going, she couldn’t get her shaky hand to her lips in time to light up.
A part of me felt the woman was better off not smoking. But then my heart got in the way, aching as I watched the cigarette bob from the woman’s lips as she repeatedly failed to light it.
I abruptly ended the conversation with my friends and walked over to the woman, who was too focused on her cigarette to notice that I had approached.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” I said. “Do you need me to light that cigarette for you?”
“Yeah,” she said in a raspy voice.
I lifted the dying lighter, struck the flame, and lit the woman’s cigarette as it shook in her mouth. She thanked me, took a drag, and I walked away, dumbfounded by my own actions.
For a moment, I wondered if I should feel guilty for helping her smoke, but one thing kept me from it – and that was love.