I'm worried I've been more lustful than usual lately. I'm not frequenting strip clubs, or picking up strangers in bars, and I'm not hooting at women on the street like some kind of demented owl. No, I'm talking about a different kind of lust. My lust is for cigarettes. See, I recently quit after smoking up to two packs a day for over fifteen years. Pity me—or better yet, fear me—but it's all I've been able to think about. Even my dreams are all about lighting up. I'm a man obsessed.

But can craving cigarettes really be called lust?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2351 for those playing at home) says, "Lust is disordered desire for or inordinate enjoyment of sexual pleasure." I'm sure thousands of ruler-wielding parochial school nuns—not to mention thousands of cigar-chomping porn producers—would agree with this assessment, but lust actually goes much further than seeing an attractive stranger on the subway and wondering what it would be like to paint their body with chocolate sauce. Sitting here staring longingly at the empty spot on my desk where the ashtray used to be is a testament to that.

"We can limit lust to sexuality, but we may want to consider the larger area of sensuality," says the Whitestone Journal, an all-things-Catholic Web site started by William Rushman back in 1996. "Sensuality is the craving for physical pleasures of all kinds. An inordinate desire to avoid pain, for physical and even emotional comfort, the best food and wine, the best looking car, can all be forms of lust." Early Church leaders held the same view, using the Latin word "luxuria," which means an inordinate craving for worldly pleasures. Luxuria was considered a sin because worldly pleasures supposedly dulled the spiritual senses, not because people were getting it on outside of wedlock. That particular definition didn't come until Thomas Aquinas published his Summa Theologica in the 13th Century, where he described the sin in more detail, casting a wider net to include masturbation, homosexuality, bestiality, and "not observing the natural manner of copulation." (I'm not going to hazard a guess as to what that last bit means, exactly, but I think it's safe to assume Aquinas won't be giving Casanova a run for his money in the World's Greatest Lover contest.)

If all vices have an opposite virtue, then lust's true opposite isn't abstinence or celibacy, it's self-control. Perhaps the best definition for lust is the self-destructive drive for pleasure out of proportion to its worth. In other words, the damage caused by the act is greater than whatever pleasure you might have gotten from it. Surely sucking dangerous amounts of smoke into my lungs for fun falls into the category of self-destructive pleasure. I knew it was bad for me, I'd seen it kill two family members already, I knew I couldn't even laugh anymore without coughing, but I continued to do it anyway because I got enjoyment out of it. I desired it. And now that I've finally quit, I miss it the way you miss a lover—with a desperate and pathetic longing.

In the old Froot Loops commercials, Toucan Sam, Kellogg's rainbow-beaked spokesbird, would catch a whiff of a cartoon odor trail coming from a bowl of cereal somewhere in the jungle and announce, "Follow my nose! It always knows!" I have become Toucan Sam, and my bowl of Froot Loops is people smoking on the street. I catch a whiff of cigarette and I follow my nose, pulled forward along the smoke trail, my feet not even touching the ground. When I get there, I close my eyes and inhale like I'm smelling the most wonderful scent in the world. You'd think I just walked into my childhood kitchen and someone's baking chocolate chip cookies. But instead of inhaling the gooeyness of melted chocolate, I smell the coal of the cigarette, the slow burn of the paper, the tang of smoke. Ah, lust.

But if lust is really about loss of self-control, what makes it different from, say, gluttony? Well, for one thing, lust blinds us in a way no other Deadly Sin does.

Have you ever been on a date with someone you thought was incredibly hot, only to discover they're a complete lunatic—and you don't care? It's lust that makes you ignore the warning flags when your date says things like, "Let's put all the homeless on a boat and send them to Mexico," or, "I voted for Kucinich." I once had a very cute woman tell me she thought eugenics was a good idea, and it took every ounce of strength to force myself to stop thinking of her as cute after that. Lust has a way of making the most ridiculous things coming out of the mouths of hotties somehow more forgivable than when the same things are said by people we find unattractive. It turns us into idiots.

Because lust has the power to make us do things we know are stupid, even as we're doing them, it offers a remarkably small return on investment. I can't tell you how many otherwise intelligent women rented the remake of Alfie from the video store I work at purely because it's got Jude Law in it. The look of embarrassment on their faces when they bring the DVD case up to the register is matched only by the timidity in their voices when they say, "I know it's not supposed to be very good, but..." They never finish the sentence. They don't have to. The next part would just be two words anyway. Jude. Law. After they've watched the movie, though, all timidity vanishes, replaced by anger: "I can't believe I wasted..." fill in the blank: my time, my money, valuable brain cells "...on this piece of crap." Unfortunately, lust also gives us short memories, since the same thing happened again to the same women when Ocean's Twelve came out.

Lucky for smokers and Jude Law fans alike, lust is deemed the least of the Seven Deadly Sins, at least according to Dante's Divine Comedy. This is because it's considered a sin of the flesh, not the soul, and since the flesh is temporary the sin can't technically follow you into eternity.

I hope that doesn't mean there are no cigarettes in the afterlife. I was kind of hoping to take up the habit again once I get there. Unless Dante is right, in which case I'll wind up in the second circle of Hell, where the lustful are blown around in terrible hurricanes that are supposed to symbolize our stormy passions. I imagine it'd be impossible to light up with all that wind.

Now that's hell.

 

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