Out of the Ashes

The Irony of Tolerance

G. L. Pease
"A pipe is the fountain of contemplation, the source of pleasure, the companion of the wise; and the man who smokes, thinks like a philosopher and acts like a Samaritan." -Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton (19th C)

I grew up with the notion that other people’s views, no matter how different from my own, even if those opposing ideas were completely unsupportable, often have nuggets of gold buried within them that we can mine and learn from. It was one of the best lessons my dad taught me, and even though he didn’t always follow his own advice, and I certainly don’t, his instillation of the value of tolerance has served well.

By tolerance, I don’t mean a blind acquiescence towards egregious, cruel or inhumane behaviors which are never acceptable, but the allowance for thoughts and ideas that may differ from our own in the quest for those nuggets of gold that serve to open our minds, broaden our world views, and make us more human.

It’s probably safe to assume that most people reading these words have similar feelings. As pipe smokers, we seem to be a fairly thoughtful, and therefore tolerant collection of reasonable, sensible and kind-hearted folk. This is demonstrated in many ways; by the generosity of those who pass along tobaccos and pipes to others via "bombing" missions, by the kind support we offer others in need, by the enthusiasm we share when someone tells us of their latest acquisition, by the advice we freely give when others are seeking it. We are human, of course, and suffer to a greater or lesser extent from our frailties, but it seems true that pipe smokers are truly a special bunch.

It makes sense, really. It requires patience to be a pipe smoker, and it takes more than patience to become one. Most of us suffered through the early days of puffing, learning the ins and outs of choosing blends that suit us, perfecting the mechanics of filling the bowl, lighting the tobacco, keeping it lit without sautéing our tongues, the challenges of choosing and breaking-in new pipes, the ritual of keeping the old ones clean; to the onlooker, it’s a deceptively simple thing, but those of us who remember our early experiences, and persisted despite them, know otherwise. Those with less resolve would likely abandon the pastime long before graduating from aspirant to the ranks of the initiated.

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I don’t mean to over-inflate a sense of "who we are," to make us out as being somehow saintly, or better than the rest of society, but to revisit something that we probably already know. It’s nothing new. Thackeray, in The Social Pipe, famously penned the often misquoted phrase, "The pipe draws wisdom from the lips of the philosopher, and shuts up the mouth of the foolish: it generates a style of conversation, contemplative, thoughtful, benevolent, and unaffected.&quot

Thackeray’s sentiments resonate with many of us, and show that through the lens of history, pipe smokers are a reflective lot. Albert Einstein, in 1950, gave us, "I believe that pipe smoking contributes to a somewhat calm and objective judgment in all human affairs." Many similar quotes elude to our tendency as a group towards reflective, philosophical thinking. Maybe there’s something to it.

There are certainly larger questions implicit in these, albeit biased, observations, assuming there is at least a seed of truth in them. Why are we perceived this way? Does pipe smoking, as an activity, select for those who are more patient, more tolerant, possessing of a more philosophical nature? Or does the act of smoking a pipe somehow shape us to be this way? Either way, a picture is painted, a perception created and shared, and, generally, we willingly accept this image.

As pipe smokers, we routinely engage in an unhurried, almost ritualistic and decidedly analogue activity within the context of an increasingly fast-paced, digital world. We can’t download tobacco, or digitize our experiences so that we can share them with others. We are forced, when we want to express the tastes and aromas of a certain tobacco, the feel of a pipe in our hands, the joy of a new acquisition (granted, often accompanied by digital photographs), or the sadness of a broken shank, to use one of the most powerful tools of our humanness. We are forced to use language, and that means slowing down a little, taking some time to compose our thoughts, and writing them down in a way we hope will convey something to others who share the passion of our pastime.

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Over the past couple decades, the interwebs have given us a wonderful opportunity to connect with one another, to join together as a global community. At no time in history have we been able to so easily, albeit virtually, commune with others who are part of the coterie of briar and leaf. The doors have been opened wide. We can instantly find answers to questions about every aspect of tobacciana, share our thoughts, and read those of others.

Newsgroups, chatrooms, forums and now social media have also become the gateway to exploration of other cultures, and we make friends along the way with people who share a common interest, many of whom we would never otherwise have met. At no time in history have we had this ability; it’s truly a remarkable thing that’s sometimes easy to take for granted.

Of course, the medium is imperfect. It’s not always easy to express ourselves in a way that is clearly understood by those for whose native language is not our own, or whose cultural perspectives may be very different, and this can sometimes lead to misunderstandings and hot tempers, especially when we’re being satirical or sarcastic, but it’s to our credit that these misunderstandings usually work themselves out. The thoughtful pipe smoker seems to be alive and well, and that’s a good thing.

I realize this runs pretty far up the pitch from my usual discussions in this column, but with the rise in hostilities in so many parts of the world, it seems to me that it might be a better place if more of its citizens embraced at least the allegorical image of the pipe smoker, if not the "gentle art" itself. Sadly, as the world’s tensions mount, I’ve witnessed a rise in hostility even within our own ranks, and that’s where the irony lies; it’s the very fact that we are a tolerant bunch that allows this to occur. I think we can sometimes do better. And, I think we should.

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We can’t do much about the global situation, but we can make sure that we make the effort to behave in our own quarters as the historical image of the pipe smoker would prescribe, with the hopes that some of it might rub off on those around us.

For all our good nature, we are, as a group, marginalized by society at large simply because we are smokers, users of tobacco, and so we have to do everything possible to stick together, to respect each other, to mine those nuggets of gold implicit in other views, even when they are at odds with our own, because only when we stand together can we endure against the social and political pressures against us all.

In The Results and Merits of Tobacco (1844), Doctor Bernstein wrote, "Nowhere in the world will such a brotherly feeling of confidence be experienced as amongst those who sit together smoking their pipes." Whether or not this was actually true then, we can all probably make a more conscious effort in striving to make it true today.

I’ll close with one more quote, from A. Conan Doyle’s The Problem of Thor Bridge: "There you have it," said Sherlock Holmes, knocking out the ashes of his after-breakfast pipe and slowly refilling it.

Your turn.

Since 1999, Gregory L. Pease has been the principal alchemist behind the blends of G.L. Pease Artisanal Tobaccos. He’s been a passionate pipeman since his university days, having cut his pipe teeth at the now extinct Drucquer & Sons Tobacconist in Berkeley, California. Greg is also author of The Briar & Leaf Chronicles, a photographer, recovering computer scientist, sometimes chef, and creator of The Epicure’s Asylum.
See our interview with G. L. Pease here.
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