The pipe has become an anomaly. Don’t think so? Try enjoying your pipe in a public environment (if that’s possible anymore), and you’ll soon see what I mean. I recently enjoyed my pipe in the bustling, classy part of a nearby South Carolina town, a community that touts its prestige. The moment I fired up the pipe, people noticed. It’s as if the pipe is viewed as a relic of the past, a museum piece of sorts. Even among folks of a cosmopolitan bent, the pipe is unusual. Indeed, the decline of pipe smoking over the past few decades is a symptom of the rise of Modern Man.
The pipe stands against the Modern Man fallacy of immediate gratification. The pipe forces a person to be still, to notice and enjoy the surrounding environment, and to think. And not simply think about silly stuff, but matters of importance. When I sit down for a pipe, I usually ponder big-picture topics, such as the meaning of things my grandparents and parents taught me, the course of my own children’s lives, how well my wife and I are working to achieve goals of value. These things take time to work out, to think through: the pipe allows me to see problems that need long-term solutions. There’s nothing immediate about it.
The pipe does not fit well in a throw-away consumer culture. Twentieth century America witnessed the rise of a modern consumer culture that gave us new versions of an old problem, materialism. I have nothing against owning nice things, and I am no minimalist, but a problem with modern consumer culture is the purposeful cheapening of products that force buyers to make repeat purchases when things break and decay. A quality pipe only gets better with use and age, and should last a lifetime when properly taken care of. Pipe people demand quality, expertise, craftsmanship, and usually a sense of vocation from the people who provide the products needed for a good smoking experience. Such values continue to shape the pipe industry as other industries continue to expect consumers to accept pathetically poor merchandise.
Pipe smoking used to be normal, manly activity. Numerous photographs and film clips from the last century proudly displayed men with pipes. In the not so distant past, there was nothing unusual about a man enjoying his pipe during a walk through town, an evening on his porch, or with friends and family around the hearth. One of the gentlemen who introduced me to pipe smoking lived his life as an accomplished medical doctor in Mobile, Alabama. By the time I met his acquaintance, he was near 80 years old and enjoying retirement on his 1000 acre estate in rural Alabama. He told me stories of patients who he helped and those whose mortal conditions were beyond the practice of medical science. The medical profession, like many professions, is stressful and time-consuming. But this gentleman explained to me that it was his pipe that helped him manage the difficult moments in his career. In a profession that asked him to be on constant call, to be ready at a moment’s notice to help save a person’s life, the pipe forced him to be still, calm down, and relax. This is not the same as “getting high,” a ridiculous waste of time that is nothing more than a form of irresponsible escapism. This gentleman was better than that. He was raised in another time, a time when men reached for a pipe when life demanded deep thought and careful action.
So what happened to pipe smoking? It, like many other traditions and pursuits of value, suffered rapid decline due to superficial notions of wealth and progress. To become wealthy, successful, and popular, Modern Man is taught to hustle, hustle, hustle, leave no stone unturned, reach for the highest mountain, and dream the biggest dreams. Little time is left to simply be. We work and strive for a lifetime so we can buy the gadgets that help us save time, but what do people do with the time that is saved? We waste it mostly. But the pipe teaches us that time spent in stillness is never wasted; indeed, it is a time to be cherished and protected. Like many before, the pipe grants us time to be still and ponder what it means to be a father, a husband, a disciple, and more to the point, it grants us time to realize the limitations of the human condition.