We started, quite frankly, because just about everybody else did, every male, that is. They all smoked, even my father, a preacher's kid who rarely, I thought, took a step out of line. When I was a kid, an open pack of L&Ms lay tantalizingly on the shelf in the dining room, a place where I could, now and then, slip one or two out and lug them somewhere just out of town or into the attic of some other kid's garage.
I don't remember ever smoking by myself--that wasn't the point. The point was huffing and puffing in a circle to become real guys together. Every time I lit up, it was within a magic circle of other kids--boys--french-inhaling or blowing admirable smoke rings. Smoking was dangerous in every way, which made it, back then, anthropologically speaking, a full-blown rite of passage.
But if it were to continue--and we all wanted it to--the magic circle required replenishment. We couldn't buy cigarettes; we were too young. So we stole 'em, again, almost ritually, often in gangs. I don't remember ever sending some kid in to grab a pack of Kents; often as not we'd move into a grocery store like a pack of coyotes. We were something akin to addicted, not to tar and nicotine, but to the sheer delight of huffing and puffing that, ironically, made us feel like naughty boys and ordinary guys simultaneously. We were Huck Finns long before we'd ever heard of Samuel Clemens or Mark Twain.
Well, we got caught--smoking and stealing. I can't imagine I was much older than my grandson, maybe sixth grade or so, at that moment of life when hormonal OEDs were beginning to blow along the gravel roads boys traveled back then. And when the end finally came, when we got caught, the scene that night in my bedroom became, without a doubt, the most memorable moment in my young life.
My parents had not a whiff of what was going on, and it was, I've always believed, beyond their imaginations to think their boy, their baby boy, would be smoking, and worse, stealing.
I've written the story elsewhere, more often than I should, but I come back to it now as all of us, I think, come back to moments when profound change alters the worlds we occupy, as it did that night. My father is gone and my mother's coming up quickly on her 95th birthday. I don't know that she even remembers that night, but the plain truth is that I'm not going to ask because she doesn't need to relive what I did to her back then. Sure, I've got some guilt.
Some. Emphasis on some.
In fascinating argument in Aeon, Carina Chocono claims that regret--she doesn't call it guilt--is essential to life, even though it has the power to twist us into emotional pretzels. Our culture wants no part of it, she says, eschewing guilt or regret as if it were itself that wily serpent in the garden. . .which only makes things worse for those of us who feel it:
Sometimes, the prevalence of this point of view makes me feel regret toward my tendency toward regret. It’s hard not to feel bad when your way of processing experience is routinely pathologised, or dismissed offhand as whiny, weak, and useless. As I write this, I regret writing it because I fear it makes me sound more neurotic than I really am. At the same time, I worry that it makes me sound exactly as neurotic as I actually am, and I regret not having done a better job of keeping this under wraps. I regret regretting things all the time, because surely I could be putting my imagination to better use.Been there, done that. But then, I'm a Calvinist.
Her point, however, is not the horror of it all, but the real and bountiful possibilities regret offers. "Mixed feelings," she says, are "what make us truly rational. They help us arrive at complicated truths by way of a dialectic process."
They're the stuff of novels and the province of the humanities, she says. Regret helps us see the ambiguity that is often at the heart of human experience.
That night in my room, my mother was a fountain of tears and my father, as he always did, tried to tend her horror. Meanwhile, I wondered why tears weren't rolling down my face. I wondered why I didn't feel a whole lot of regret at that moment, a ton of guilt. Oh, it's has risen from that moment, but not at that moment--and, truth be told, I wondered about myself right then because something told me that I too should be using my sheet to dry a fountain of tears. But I wasn't. I didn't because there were none.
Did my dry eyes make me cold to my own sin? Why wasn't I my parents' child? Was I, like the Devil himself, somehow far afield of the paths of righteousness?
All of that was more than a half century ago, but when I read Carina Chocono's delightful essay, I was, in a moment, sitting there on the bed in my underwear, looking away from my parents and out of that odd circular window in my boyhood bedroom, a bedroom, oddly enough, without a door.
"Rather than deny regret," she says, "we should embrace ambivalence."
I think she's right. If that moment in my bedroom still mystifies--and it does--then that's okay. It's just fine, because often enough life itself mystifies.
We should strive for an ideal — that is, behave as if it’s possible for an absolute ideal to exist — while remembering that it doesn’t, that in fact outcomes are random, and that all possibilities exist simultaneously.I wasn't thinking about life's complexities one summer night when I was 11 years old and my parents caught wind of me smoking cigarettes we stole from the Red Owl. I wasn't thinking about embracing ambiguity.
But today I can, and today I do.