Have you ever seen someone deliver a burst of nicotine-laden vapor into his lungs via a handheld electronic device? And have you then seen him — about 90% of the time it’s a male — then expel what is now a billowy white cloud of vapor from his mouth? Well, that is vaping. It’s intended to be a surrogate for cigarettes, as it enables a person to breathe in a shot of nicotine, but without the tar that comes from tobacco, which causes cancer, heart disease, emphysema, and other serious medical ailments.
There was a time when cigarette smoking was portrayed as either being graceful and elegant, manly and cool, sophisticated, or in some other attractive light. In old films, on TV, and in magazines it appeared glamorous. Of course, it couldn’t be portrayed that way unless there was an aspect of cigarette smoking that was able to evoke those qualities. Long before the cellphone was invented, cigarette smoking was what one did when one wished to withdraw from the world. Rather than reading a text message, checking the news, Facebook, the Dow, the weather, or whatever, people would simply watch the smoke rise aloft from their cigarette. If the cellphone encourages a distracted, self-absorbed state, cigarettes lend themselves to a contemplative state.
By contrast, vaping isn’t even vaguely elegant or glamorous. On the contrary, if we didn’t know better, we would think that someone vaping is attempting to ward off an asthmatic attack. Then, perhaps ten minutes later the addict repeats the action. Instead of looking glamorous, it looks pathetic. What, then, is going on here? Is it really, as vapor addicts claim, simply a safe way to ingest nicotine? Or is there something more than meets the eye?
Just as cigarettes have their own secret psychological appeal — which we have discussed in another essay blog post — so does vaping. We had stated that almost 90% of those who vape are male. That offers us a clue to the phenomenon. Also, most of them are fairly young, in their twenties or thirties. It would appear that men, more so than women, are in search of a meaning to guide their life. They are more likely to be searching for an identity, an ultimate center and foundation, a moral and metaphysical compass, a meaning and a purpose that can provide them with an orientation.
Without that meaning or logos, a man wanders about lost. He might, of course, appear to be purposely acting in the world. He might, indeed, work, be married and provide for a family, but his restlessness and uneasiness indicates an inward instability. Despite the appearance of solidity, he experiences his life as without a foundation, and as such unstable and chaotic. Religion used to provide that moral and spiritual compass and foundation for most people. They could then connect their finite, transient existence to that which is ultimate, absolute, non-contingent and eternal, but far fewer people turn to religion in any real way, for whatever the reason. (I am neither recommending nor not recommending a return to religion, but merely observing the origins of our contemporary malaise.)
Vaping as Surrogate for Meaning and Purpose
Here, then, is where vaping becomes an attempted solution to the problem of needing an ultimate ground and orientation, but to make sense of it one has to understand its symbolic appeal. To those not familiar with the power of symbolism in our lives, what I’m about to say might seem like a bit of a stretch, indeed pretty far out, but here goes: The high-tech nature of the instrument used in vaping offers an important clue. What a man who vapes is sucking into himself is, symbolically speaking, science and technology. And what he is blowing out is not simply clouds of smoke, but billowing clouds of confusion. Of course, science and technology don‘t provide meaning, purpose, and an orientation, although some people regard the progress of science as a utopian dream, one that acts as an attempted surrogate for the promised land of religion.
But apart from these science-inspired visions of the millennium, many men associate science with rationality, reason, understanding, and order. Indeed, they see science as a beacon of light, which they contrast with the dark, feminine dimension of life, which — although possessing he holistic qualities of fullness, wholeness and plenitude —embodies darkness and disorder, indeed the chaos, of the emotions. (I’m not talking gender here, but rather the feminine and masculine polarities of consciousness that C.G. Jung and other thinkers write about. Thus a man can have a feminine component to his psyche — the “anima,” to use Jungian lingo — and woman can have a masculine component — the “animus.”)
Of course, symbolic solutions of this sort don’t succeed in accomplishing what they set out do. In this case, inhaling vaporous nicotine from a scientific-looking device isn’t going to provide a person with the order, meaning and orientation that he seeks. If it did offer a person the orientation and foundation that he is truly seeking, it would do so on the first inhalation, in which case he wouldn’t have to repeat it over and over and over again.
Yes, the nicotine is physically addicting. I don’t mean to give it short shrift, so let’s consider it for a moment. What is the kick that one receives from nicotine? It’s a stimulant, as is, for example, the caffeine that we find in coffee or in energy drinks. A lack of energy can have purely physical causes — from a lack of sleep to getting older — but very often the primary reason for a lack of energy is a lack of enthusiasm for what one is doing, which then leads to boredom, followed by a decrease of energy. If there’s one thing that causes boredom, it’s emptiness and meaninglessness. Thus, even on a physical level, nicotine can act as a surrogate for the enthusiasm that derives from having a purpose, meaning, and direction.
The Secret Cause of Addiction
Here, again, even apart from the shot of nicotine, the action of vaping — sucking in and expelling the vapor, by means of an electronic devise — is psychologically addicting. But what really is an addiction? It has been said that at every moment life asks us a question. An addiction is an inadequate answer to an ultimate question. We might say, for example, that life says, “Who are you? Who are these other people you see everyday? What is your purpose on this planet? And what is this enigma called “life” really all about?” Your answer might be inadequate, but it’s difficult for you to relinquish it, if you haven’t found a superior answer to life’s ultimate questions.
Like most of us, the addict would rather have an inadequate than no answer at all. The ability to endure the anxious uncertainty that comes from not having an adequate answer to the big questions is akin to what the poet John Keats referred to as a “negative capability.” I think that to be able to endure that anxious uncertainty one must, to paraphrase the Bible, have faith that if one knocks persistently enough — and for long enough — eventually the door to the kingdom of heaven will be opened. For the Buddhists, one must have the patience to know that long sustained arduous efforts will lead to enlightenment. In this age of philosophical skepticism, not everyone believes that there exists a secret knowledge, which if known, can change everything for a person. Furthermore, one must not only believe it, one must actually pound away at the door.
A similar symbolism explains the power of placebos. Here, again, a person — in this case a patent, whose suffering is at least partly psychosomatic — is ingesting is the mystique of science and technology, embodying the values of order, rationality, orientation, and light. I seem to recall Professor Emeritus William Pizante, of Binghamton University, lecturing about the symbolic appeal of placebos, approximately thirty-five years ago.
Copyright © 2018 Mark Dillof