Don’t Smoke the Newspaper
I grew up in the suburbs, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t opportunities to get into trouble and do amazingly stupid things. In the summer time, the neighborhood kids—probably about twenty of us—would stay out to all hours of the night. Opportunities for stupidity abounded.
My older brother, Alan, and I played with Steve and Mike more than any of the other kids on the block. They always had some off-the-wall story about their Uncle Alex. They thought a lot of their uncle, and it was easy to understand why. The few occasions I actually spent any time with him left me with the impression that this guy had it going on. Alex was strong, charismatic, jovial, and seemed to always know what he was talking about. However, Uncle Alex was also quite the instigator and constantly tried to get his nephews to do something outrageous, invariably getting them into trouble with their parents.
One day, when I was around nine years old, the four of us were outside playing when Steve piped up and said, “Guess what Uncle Alex told us?” Good old Uncle Alex had bestowed some of his knowledge concerning the fine art of smoking on his all-too-eager nephews. He told Steve that newspaper could be rolled up and smoked. So, we sent Steve home to get some newspaper and matches, and when he returned, we all proceeded to the grove of trees behind my house for cover.
Looking back now, what Uncle Alex probably said was that you could smoke newspaper; as in, tear off a little piece, roll it up, and tie a granny knot in the middle of it. However, Steve told us that you could smoke a newspaper. So Alan rolled up an entire sheet of newspaper and tied a simple granny knot in the middle of it, believing that we were following Uncle Alex’s instructions. We stood in a circle, and as we prepared to light it, we all came to the decision that since it was Steve’s uncle who had imparted such wisdom to us, it was only fair that Steve should get first crack at our homemade, world-class sized cigarette.
At our ages, none of us were seasoned smokers, but we knew enough by watching others what smoking should look like. Alan lit one end of the paper and blew out the flame. Much to our surprise, the lit end continued to glow red and smolder, just like a cigarette would. We thought that when the flame went out, that would be the end of it. Hmm, maybe Uncle Alex was right.
Steve took the paper, stuck it in his mouth, and proceeded to inhale . . . nothing. No smoking. He tried and tried and tried. Nothing but lots of nothing. The end smoldered and smoked, but Steve didn’t get any of it for himself. Exasperated, Alan asked for a turn, and Steve handed it over with a great degree of disappointment over not having any success. Alan was determined to make this thing work. He put it in his mouth and kept taking breath after breath. It was deadly silent in those woods except for the rhythmic sound of my brother sucking wind in his vain attempt to smoke the paper.
I had had enough. With a “My turn,” I snatched the “cigarette” out of Alan’s hands. I was going to show these people how to do it. Undaunted by the somewhat-soggy cigarette, I put it in my mouth and drew, but there was nothing. I did it again and still had no success. This was not as easy as I’d hoped it would be. I exhaled as much as I could to prepare for another drag. I put every bit of strength my little lungs could muster into that the third pull. Halfway into my draw, the cigarette finally gave up its prize. Somewhere in the knot of the paper, something broke loose and smoke suddenly and violently filled my lungs.
I thought I was going to die. With a loud “PUUUUUUUUUHHHHHH,” the biggest cloud of black, acrid smoke came pouring out of my face. It came out of my mouth and nose and it sure enough felt like it was coming out of my eyes and ears. I was “feeling the burn.” I could hear everyone around me cheering, but I could only see two things—smoky blackness and stars. Alan patted me on the back and said with great excitement, “Do it again. Do it again! That was cool!”
My brain was swimming, my nose running, my head and chest felt like a screaming inferno, and I was having such a coughing fit, I believed that at any moment my lungs were going to come out of my mouth. The dizziness almost brought me to my knees. To top it off, the residual taste made me gag. I wanted NO PART of “Do it again!” My only goal was to pass off the uber-cigarette as fast as I could. Someone else needed to join me in my pain. Honestly, I cannot remember anything after the moment that Alan took the newspaper out of my hands. All I knew was that Uncle Alex was right: you can smoke a newspaper. I also knew I would never trust Uncle Alex again, and if Steve or Mike ever volunteered another of their uncle’s pearls of wisdom, someone was going to get slapped.
But really, why should I be mad at their uncle? He didn’t roll the newspaper. He didn’t light it. He didn’t “make” us smoke it. We did that all by ourselves. At the same time, we knew that what we were doing would not meet with our parents’ approval. We certainly didn’t ask permission, and we deliberately took shelter in the woods, away from prying eyes. So what brought on this particular adventure?
Uncle Alex had influence over our lives. The mystique that surrounded him gave him sway over what we did. It impacted our decisions and behavior. We had heard enough lectures from our parents and teachers alike to know that smoking was beyond unhealthy. And yet, we allowed this one man’s momentary, fleeting statement to override everything we had been taught—even to the point that it wasn’t a cigarette or cigar that we attempted to smoke, but a NEWSPAPER. As bad as the things are that go into cigarettes, can you image the horrible ingredients in a newspaper? Just thinking about the ink alone makes me want to go back in time, snatch that little boy up and ask, “What are you doing?! Are you stupid?”
Yet, that is the power of influence. By default of their relationship with you, the people you surround yourself with as well as those you look up to hold a place of influence in your life. It is impossible to avoid. The things they say and do impact the way you think and behave. Steve and Mike had just as much influence on me as I had on them. Uncle Alex was someone I only saw a handful of times, but I allowed my perception of him to dictate my actions. I admired the man and wanted to be like him, so I did something he suggested. I did something I felt he would want me to do.
Influence also lies underneath the power of advertising. A celebrity becomes the “pitch man” for a product, solely because the ad agency knows that people want to be like those superstars. Peyton Manning endorses Wheaties. Michael Jordan wears Hanes underwear. Halle Berry is one of the faces of Revlon. Jamie Lee Curtis eats Activia yogurt. Who has ever spent any amount of significant time with these “heroes?” Yet we spend our money based on what they endorse. If we aren’t careful about who influences us and how, we will end up becoming mere copies of someone else and do stupid things we ultimately end up regretting rather than being the person God wants us to be.
The Bible points this principle out in the book of Proverbs: “Do not make friends with a hot-tempered man, do not associate with one easily angered, or you may learn his ways and get yourself ensnared.”[i] If we hang around an angry person, we end up becoming angry ourselves. The angry person doesn’t end up becoming more self-controlled—we end up losing our control. I find it interesting that the downward pull of influence always exerts greater strength than the upward. The apostle Paul said it this way: “Do not be deceived: bad company corrupts good morals.”[ii]
No one lives in a social vacuum. God has made us social beings. Yes, some people are more social than others, but the principle remains the same for everyone. Modern technology has even made leaving our houses irrelevant when it comes to influence. On any given day, email, IM, Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, and webcams make it possible to influence and be influenced in countless ways.
We can be slaves to others’ influences, or we can become the people God wants us to be through healthy influences. We can change for the better. We can find full expressions of life through interactions with others. We just have to be careful about where our influences emerge. This demands purpose and intentionality from each of us. Another proverb says, “He who walks with the wise will be wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.”[iii]
We need to allow people who are “better” than us to speak into our lives. By “better” I mean those around us whose walk with the Lord is plainly evident and stronger than ours. We need to observe them, learn from them, do what they do, spend time with them, and be accountable to them. This is something we have to go out of our way to do—it doesn’t happen naturally. We all have a tendency to do what is easiest. The challenge to become more than what we are doesn’t occur easily or expediently. Most of the time, it isn’t any fun either. But in the end, it is always worth it!
That doesn’t mean there won’t be “fools” in our lives—they will always be there. We just shouldn’t make them our close companions or be influenced by them. We can exert the influence. We should endeavor to impact others for the better. Speak to them the wisdom I would speak to you now: PUT THE NEWSPAPER DOWN!
Think About It
- Who are the people from your past that have influenced you (both positively and negatively)?
- What things did you do because of their influence?
- What things do you do now because of their influence?
- Name five people in your life today that influence you.
- How are they influencing you for better or for worse?
- Who are you influencing?
- What are you doing to influence them, and what kind of impact are you having?