In the beginning… there was smoke! And as we all know, where there is smoke there are cigars. Usually a nice Nicaraguan, medium to full-bodied, wrapped in either a sweet maduro or a dark, oily oscurro leaf. We met, in all places, in a cigar lounge.
Jane Goodall would be very comfortable studying us in the cigar lounge kingdom. There we are, sitting in a circle, metaphorically “grooming” each other, and chomping on leaves. It is very social, and comfortable. And, as in any social circle, in a cigar lounge, there is conversation, of all manner. Everything from politics/what the female Fox News anchors are wearing to cigar preference is fair game. However, there is often a certain air of banality to the conversation that usually takes place at cigar lounges. While there is intelligent conversation at times, it never went past tribal one-upmanship – “my pile of trivia is bigger than yours.” The opportunity is there, for deeper conversation. Some take advantage of that deeper conversation, but many don’t.
Sarcasm is the lingua franca of the cigar lounge, and we both are fluent in it. However, we recognized in the other a capacity for more than the monosyllabic babble of the masses of the cigar lounge. There was a sharper edge to the sarcasm: a lot more intelligence and sophistication behind those things said and unsaid, an intellectual curiosity for more than bullet points, or talking points, that everyone distributes at the beginning of the day.
It was in these moments that we found a shared enjoyment of all things academic and spiritual. Religious talk became discussions on theology. Questions of what do you believe became inquiries about why we believe. These conversations quickly outgrew the fragrant confines of the cigar lounge, billowing out onto the internet. We created a blog, cheekily titled A Jew and A Gentile Walk into a Bar . . . Mitzvah. It was during our working on our interfaith blog dialogue that we discovered another connection between us: we both live with depression.
We met at a cigar lounge. Why is this important? What does that have to do with faith and mental health? First, cigars and the cigar lifestyle is part of our common vocabulary, and second, cigar lounges are, in their way, faith and therapeutic communities. Smoking cigars is therapy. Sensual engagement. Silence and camaraderie. And even though much of the conversation can be superficial and banal, it does free you. It frees other parts of your brains to work on other things. It is meditative, in a manner. To the outsider it would not seem possible. To have the milieu of the cigar lounge as a therapeutic setting? There is a concern with each other. There are actually genuine attempts to deal and heal when you walk into that setting.
The emphasis for counselors is to be a non-anxious presence. That is what the therapist is supposed to convey. In the cigar lounge, it is just the guys, untrained in therapeutic interventions. But like clinical therapy settings, other than the smoke, what happens in the lounge, stays in the lounge! When one of the regulars lost his son, there were lots of tears. They comfort you. We comfort each other. We are not giving advice – we are just there. Like in “normal” therapy. Unlike “traditional” therapy sessions where you have to attend and take your medicine, at the cigar lounge you look forward to your session. In professionally organized therapy, the therapeutic moment doesn’t always come. It is often in the sharing with others, and in the helping of others, that you achieve the therapeutic moment.
Cigar Therapy is often done with the deftly wielded scalpel of a surgeon, or a tree trimmer. In a way, no one gives a crap – but they all did listen and they do care – deeply. For strangers, being in the room together, to be allowed to simply bitch, or kvetch, is therapeutic. You will not find this type of therapeutic community on a bus or on a train. No one stops you and says “shut up!” Your admittance into the lounge is conditional by what you smoke, your choice of cigar (hand-mades are ok, machine mades are looked down upon, and flavoreds are taboo), your acceptance as a person isn’t – that is unconditional.
When my depression was so bad that I didn’t want to even talk, in the cigar lounge I could always talk about cigars. In the movie, Field of Dreams, James Earl Jones’s character says “whatever went wrong in our country, there was always baseball!” For us, “whatever went wrong in our depressive episodes, there was always the cigar lounge!”
For depressives, an afternoon at the cigar lounge can be a marathon. You get up out of bed, force yourself to dress, to go out, engage with people. It costs you – a full day for a depressive! Yet, at same time it can be energizing. You can be in the corner, in your own head, and still be around people. There is no pressure to participate. Participation is voluntary in the cigar lounge. If you want to sit and be quiet and just smoke your cigar it is ok. It can often be blissful to be totally alone surrounded by people. So, the cigar lifestyle can facilitate better mental health – the defeat of the isolation.
There are times in the cigar lounge when three people can be raucous and times when eight people can be silent. They know when and how to leave you alone. Outside of the cigar lounge, people mean well but because they are uncomfortable with the silence around them, they feel the need to talk and to help others “out of their misery,” but they are only helping themselves out of their own silence, out of their own unbearable thoughts that usually fill their silent moments.
Another advantage of smoking in a cigar lounge is the opportunity to learn more about the subtle art and science which is the blending and manufacturing cigars. Cigarettes are nothing more than nicotine injection devices. Cigars are a delicacy. In other words, why are you smoking? Remember all those stupid drinking games you played in college? Well, if you to play a game to drink, then you shouldn’t be drinking. Are you just looking for a nicotine buzz, or do you want to relax with an experience that requires four of your five senses? Are you doing it to escape or to be in it? It is the difference between self-medicating and enjoying living the moment. That is what the cigar lounge is. It is using all your faculties.
Of all things we are talking about, the cigar lounge is Community, with a capitol “C” (another recurring theme in this book), and isn’t Community also an aspect of faith? So, we can look at the parallel between cigar lounges and faith-based communities. Much of this may sound blasphemous, but, from an anthropological perspective, these are artifacts consistent with the establishing of human tribal units. Whenever and wherever we gather, we infuse that gathering with meaning through these means. Your secular faith community might be your book club, golf league, or the Kiwanis. For us, it is our local cigar lounge. Is it any more absurd to commune with others to appreciate a handmade agricultural product than it is because Oprah has declared a book the book of the moment? We are social creatures, and we ritualize our repetitive social interactions. It is what we do.
Our faith community is there to celebrate births, baptisms, B’nai Mitzvot, first communions, and weddings. When we lose a loved one, they are there to offer prayers of comfort and bring casseroles; when we are sick, they are there to offer prayers of healing and bring casseroles; and when we struggle with mental health issues they are conspicuously absent. When they do appear they offer little more than platitudes or exhortations such as, “If you are suffering, you must not be praying enough.” Yet, no one in the cigar lounge exclaims “You’re not smoking enough!” You may be smoking the “wrong” cigars (Dominican, not Nicaraguan; Habanno, not maduro; General, not boutique), but as long as you a smoking a cigar, all is right in your universe.
So, if you are a person of faith and intellect and you want to cope with your depression, what do you do? You smoke a good cigar and then write a book.
This book is the next step of a dialogue we started several years ago to which we invite you, Dear Reader, to join. But be forewarned! This conversation is an honest discussion of the “issues” of mental illness and of Faith. We approach both of these subjects from many directions: personal, academic, theological, and philosophical. There will also be humor (most of it sarcastic) and poorly constructed cigar metaphors (often stretched, contorted, and distorted beyond usefulness).
If you or a loved one suffers from depression or any other mental illness and are looking for someone to show you the well-trodden path the recovery, STOP READING AND PUT THIS BOOK DOWN NOW! What unfolds on the following pages are two journeys which have, for a time, intertwined. Our point? Sometimes there is comfort in just knowing there are others travelling, even if their paths and destinations are different from our own. If anything we share helps you in any way, take it. But please, under no circumstances take what we have written as gospel.