Who said we can’t do that and why?

2013-05-09 00:00

THE first moral disagreement I had with my children was over smoking. Lael thought it was a disgusting habit; I did not. I realised our views clashed when as a topic for her Grade 4 opinion essay she chose: “Why you should not smoke”. I read the title, underlined in bold and decorated with exclamation marks, and then suggested that she change it to: “Why you should not smoke too much”.

Lael examined me for a few minutes and then returned to her three points: smoking makes you tired, smoking makes God displeased with you and smoking ruins your skin. Not only does it make you dry and wrinkled, she explained, it also pulls your face down until it sags like a bag of wet straw.

I liked her imagery, but not her argument.

A hundred years ago, the stories of P.G. Wodehouse painted smoking into a safe haven, a refuge from life’s fluster. His characters would regularly say things like: “There is no heaviness of the soul which will not vanish beneath the influence of a quiet smoke.”

A few years later, Tolkien clinched his argument. For Frodo and Gandalf, smoking was an art form — a meditative way to close the day. It wasn’t a disgusting habit; it was a refined pleasure that was pursued in moderation, with self-control. It had about the same status as wine tasting.

How far we have fallen. Today, the one moral we all seem to agree upon, Hindu, Jew and Gentile, is that smoking is the ultimate sin. Which makes me want to ask: by whose authority?

One of the rude childhood questions I hope Lael will keep on asking is this: who says? By whose authority? And is it an authority I’d be wise to obey? There are so many powers fighting to give orders, that our children would be foolish to listen to all of them, and foolish to listen to none. So who says smoking can’t be enjoyed? Is it the god of political correctness, or a god with a better reason?

Who says hundreds of things: that human rights are more important than animals’; that South African cultures don’t need to improve; that butter is better for you than marge?

It’s not that I don’t want our children to make moral judgments, but I don’t want them to be forced into judgments by a bully they don’t trust. One hundred years ago, people faced the same temptation to abuse tobacco, and the likes of Edith Nesbit did, but they also had the freedom to enjoy it, with self-control, and the likes of Wodehouse did. I wanted my children to operate under the same kind of freedom, the freedom to pursue what the authorities they love don’t forbid.

“Look, Lael,” I finally said, “I don’t think God is telling you he’s displeased with smokers, I think someone else is. And you’ve got to always be asking yourself: ‘Who?’ But because we agree that all good gifts come from God, I think we can see smoking as one of those good gifts. People can have a fine meal, drink some fine wine and stuff some fine tobacco. It’s when they get addicted and stressed and immature about it that smoking becomes a burden, that smoking becomes destructive.”

Lael listened carefully, sometimes frowning and sometimes nodding. Then eventually she sighed, like I had placed a very large duty on her, but one she was willing to bear for my sake. “Okay,” she said at last, “but I think when I’m an adult I’ll only smoke at lunch time.”

• Sarah Groves is a freelance writer living in Pietermaritzburg.

Sarah Groves


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