The Cigarette and The Mask

“Just as I catch my bags and see if I’ve been clipped, I noticed that he’s wearing sunglasses on with his surgical mask pulled down below his chin and has an unlit cigarette in his mouth.”

While I walk back to my apartment with bags full of groceries under my arms, I stop at the cross section waiting for the walking signal to light up, seemingly unaware of the bike screeching by me. “Hey, watch out, man!”, the bicyclist yells as he peddles past me almost knocking into my groceries. He speeds by just narrowly missing oncoming traffic as he heads downtown. Just as I catch my bags and see if I’ve been clipped, I noticed that he’s wearing sunglasses on with his surgical mask pulled down below his chin and has an unlit cigarette in his mouth.

Now, I would hope that he was not getting ready to smoke while biking, but it sure looked like he had smoked a few or more cigarettes. We were both outside at the time, of course, and I could assume that he maybe just likes to wear a mask indoors and would rather smoke a cigarette while he biked or afterwards to enjoy the rush while getting some needed fresh air. The confluence of events of almost getting hit by this biker along with the scene of him having an unlit cigarette in his mouth, a mask under his chin, and no helmet on as he sped through foot traffic without regard for anybody else was so laden with irony that I couldn’t happen to notice all the ironies afoot.

If a commercial could be made about this bicyclist, it would be quite entertaining. “Protect yourself from COVID in the short-term, but don’t forget about the long-term risks to one’s health!” In that commercial, it would show the bicyclist being transformed from having a cigarette in his mouth to having none with a nicotine patch or gum if it’s anti-smoking or if it’s pro-safety to have him properly wearing a biking helmet rather than not having one.

These kind of public health or public safety campaigns are quite common in our culture especially when it comes to the dangers of smoking and the dangers of not wearing a helmet while cycling or biking. Now, after almost two years, we now have quite substantive public health messages around wearing a face mask or adequate face covering, especially while indoors, to prevent the further spread of the Coronavirus. The same public health messaging was quite prevalent at first when it came to social or physical distancing before the arrival of tested and approved vaccines.

Undoubtedly, these public health messages have saved thousands of lives and done much to further the progress of the current vaccination campaigns. We now know society-wide how masks can help prevent the spread of viruses just as we knew starting in the 1980s and later in the 1990s the harm that smoking can do long-term to one’s health. It took a few decades but now smoking is much less prevalent than it used to be, and the risks are well-known. The same could be said about wearing a protective helmet when biking or riding a motorcycle. It took a while for these messages to be ingrained in our society, but they protect not only our health long-term but also our safety in the short-term.

The advent of mask wearing in a pandemic has not fully set in for some people but for most people, the public health messages had a massive impact and after some initial confusion and the lack of supplies for protective gear, almost two years later, that public health messaging has set in across society. You could argue if the advent of mask wearing in public will have the same longevity or the same need years from now as anti-smoking campaigns would. While virus and diseases can become endemic, they can also possibly burn out much quicker than the long-term health risks that will remain with us after the pandemic such as smoking or drinking alcohol.

While the public health and safety messages around mask wearing, helmet wearing, and not smoking especially near a building have made people healthier and safer, I fear that other health warnings or messaging has been rather lackluster especially during the pandemic. Wearing a mask and not picking up a cigarette are easy enough for society to adopt, but the messaging should not end there.

In the age of the Internet, social media, and seemingly endless modes of messaging mediums, I have not noticed any uptick in making the public aware about the benefits of exercising daily or multiple times per week. I also have not noticed an effort to educate people on what a well-balanced diet looks like or what foods to avoid that are both addictive and unhealthy. Smoking is a bad habit but so is not having a proper diet. I am not saying that people should be told what to eat and what to drink but I don’t see the harm in sharing more messaging about what a healthy breakfast, lunch, or dinner looks like or to give examples to adults, especially young people in college or in their 20s.

In addition to a proper diet, bringing to people’s attention the need to exercise has never been a real part of public health messaging. The lack of public and/or outdoor gyms provided by towns and cities has contributed to other health issues that have reared their head during the pandemic. COVID-19 may be with us now but other health issues like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease are not going away anytime soon.

For the almost two years of the pandemic, there was a real opportunity that was squandered for the public to hear about other ways to stay healthy and well. Viruses make people fearful and anxious but instead of just saying “wear a mask!” and “be socially distant!”, other messages about sleeping 7-8 hours a night, reducing our time staring at screens, maintaining a healthy diet, and making sure to exercise each day or most days was rarely ever thought of to be entered into public consciousness.

Even something as simple as telling people who were mainly indoors to take their vitamins each day especially both Vitamins C and D, which some people are deficient in especially in wintertime was completely neglected. I usually refrain from commenting on matters of public health but having done all these things for myself as many others do on their own accord, I don’t see why this kind of public health messaging hasn’t caught on. It doesn’t take more than a minute or two to discuss proper habits to build such as having more hours of sleep, what goes into a healthy diet, why exercise is important, or what are the benefits of vitamins.

I am not sure of how much money has been spent on anti-smoking, anti-drunk driving campaigns over the years but I’m sure it’s much more than what could also been address to the public. Now, in addition to the ills of drinking, smoking, we know now why mask wearing is important during a pandemic with an infectious virus that spreads easily. I don’t think that we should stop there and to keep trying to advocate for other commonly known public health matters that sadly still go largely ignored in terms of messaging campaigns.

From the local to the national level, after the pandemic is over, I would strongly recommend investing much more money, time, and even public infrastructure (outdoor gyms, for example) in building awareness of different public health matters that have remained largely unaddressed. From sleep to diet to exercise to even how to manage anxiety and stress properly, these important messages will affect people’s long-term health positively.

We know messages have worked in the past as I mentioned with wearing a helmet, not smoking in public places, and wearing a mask when others are near you. Lives have been saved and society has been improved because of those messages. When it comes to everyone’s long-term health, I would ask us all to think bigger to improve messaging around other public health needs, so we don’t end up only receiving advice on protecting the public’s health during a once-in-a-century global pandemic.

What We Need vs. What We Want

Understanding that you must be able to divide up the two categories fairly and also be able to balance them healthily with our seemingly limitless desires at times is key to being a fully formed individual.

A key part of adulthood is being able to know the differences between knowing ‘what we want’ vs. knowing ‘what we need.’ Understanding that you must be able to divide up the two categories fairly and also be able to balance them healthily with our seemingly limitless desires at times is key to being a fully formed individual. As children, we are taught to temper our desires to manageable levels and to remember to not be selfish especially when it conflicts with the needs of others.

We are flawed as humans in that we often let our wants overtake our immediate needs and that we cannot distinguish the two in terms of actual importance. I may want a new suit but if I only have so much money, do I really need it? Am I being selfish by buying a suit when I already have a perfectly good one at you? These questions are especially important to pose when you have limited money or time to contribute towards either your needs or wants. What we focus on each day shows us if we care more about ‘needs’ or ‘wants.’

It has to be non-negotiable in your own life how your needs come first and will always come first. Your wants have to be considered in terms of whether you actually need them and how much they will actually add that much to your life. When it comes to your wants, you should not only be thinking about their utility in the short-term but also in the long-term. Will you be that much better off not just a day later, a week later, or a year later when you satisfy those wants? A short-term want will be fleeting and may end up not even be worth it whereas a long-term want like starting a business, getting your degree, or moving overseas are often worthwhile investments and satisfactory wants that will put you ahead in your life. If you do want to fulfill your wants, they should be in the interest of you moving forward, learning new things, and developing your interests.

Short-term wants are good every now and then like a new bicycle, a nice meal out with friends, or a trip to a day spa, but the gratification will be short-term, and you can’t rely on those wants to fulfill you in the long-term. Long-term wants are harder to achieve but they often have higher levels of satisfaction. These wants aren’t automatically given to you and you have to work for them but it’s often worth the effort more so than just things being handed to you automatically. Your wants have to be kept in moderation too because if you let your wants overwhelm your needs, you may be left with less than you had before. An adult keeps their wants in check and prioritizes their needs first to make sure that their life is headed in the right direction. Long-term gains have to always take priority over short-term gratification, which may give you happiness but won’t give you fulfillment in the long run.

Your needs in daily life should always come first in terms of securing them. Whether it is water to drink, clean air to breathe, food to eat, and a roof over your head; they are all part of the equation to keep you in good spirits and in good health. Do not let your wants take away from your immediate needs because when it comes down to it, your wants may come and go but your needs are your needs and that never really changes. Abraham Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ was pretty much on the money in terms of distinguishing what are most urgent needs are and beyond that, what could be considered wants. We have the physical needs of eating, drinking, sleeping, maintaining homeostasis (not too warm or too cold) but beyond that, we start to go into the wants territory of seeking out self-actualization as well as having a steady purpose in life.

We all need human connection along with friends and family who care about us but that is not given to everybody and that kind of need is something that you have to work for and what you have to ‘want’ in a way. We all need safety and security to carry out our lives but that is something that we have to work towards to and that is not guaranteed when we are born. What we need may not been given to us like friends and family or the security of a place we live in and we may have to take action to turn those needs into a reality by wanting them badly enough.

In Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’, our basic needs must be taken care of first as the pyramid shows us but then you have our psychological needs such as love, relationships, friendships, and feelings of accomplishment and goal-setting. As you go up the pyramid, you get into the ‘self-fulfillment’ needs category of achieving our potential, reaching our set goals, and becoming the best version of ourselves through self-actualization. This category is tricky, but we may feel that we need to be fulfilled that way; how hard are you willing to work to achieve that and how much do you really want to achieve it?

I would argue that our basic needs of food, drink, shelter, warmth, etc. are real needs but our psychological or self-fulfillment needs are different in that while each of us need them in our life, they are really ‘wants’ that you have to earn and to work for. Our basic needs are not given to us either, but they are of such urgency that we will do almost anything to have them guaranteed and it often subsumes our other ‘needs’ like love, friendship, or career goals.

What we need to live is our number one priority. Everything after that is supplementary in life. What we want Is important but it’s clear that our wants are endless at times and we need to prioritize with our limited time and/or money what matters to us most to achieve or to have. Being able to prioritize while understanding this internal battle is key to being a fully formed individual capable of holding our wants at bay while getting our needs taken care of.

Lastly, it is important to distinguish between short-term needs and long-term needs. Short-term needs should always take priority over long-term needs, but you can work towards both at the same time. You can hunt for food and still have companionship with a loved one at the same time. You can watch your vegetables grow while you’re studying for your next course exam or replying to emails. However, if your immediate needs are unmet or neglected, your long-term needs will have to take a backseat because they are just not as critical as what short-term needs are in terms of daily occurrence. You need to eat and drink water a lot more than you need to see your family and friends as an adult. I’m sure you would love to see them every day but it’s more likely you would see them once a week or a month or maybe less if you’re really busy.

Your immediate needs can be balanced with long-term needs, however, if you can’t cook for yourself, make money to support yourself, or be able to clean and take care of yourself physically, not many or very few of your long-term needs can be met after. As an adult, you need to take care of the daily details before you can reach your lifelong dreams and goals. What we need vs. what we want is a constant battle taking place in our mind. If we don’t pay attention to how to win this battle by trusting in our innate knowledge of what we are capable of doing to achieve them one by one and what are healthy priorities to focus on, you won’t be able to get very far in life with either your needs or your wants.

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