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Mark Olmsted

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The Spiritual Lessons of HIV

Posted: 10/19/09 07:10 PM ET

Having HIV for 25 years is like traveling on a very long highway. It is not only studded with tollbooths charging exorbitant fees, but the gas stations are spaced so far apart that you barely make it from one to the next. At the end of the trip, you look back at all the other cars that didn't make it and the arbitrariness of the view can drive you to atheism. Why them and not me? I did nothing better; in fact I took many a detour, drove recklessly. Can there be a God -- at least one worth believing in -- that would be so fickle? At the same time, how can all those deaths have no greater sense beyond the grief they brought upon loved ones?

Personally, I've always found God in the human capacity to make meaning. That I survived instead of my brother or any of many friends does not mean I was supposed to live for some greater purpose that they couldn't fulfill. But that I did live can endow me with the responsibility to make that survival mean something. I can examine everything I've observed about life in a way I wouldn't have had I not been challenged by this disease, to ask myself: What have I learned?

I learned that there are things much worse than death. There is the kind of fear that marked the early days of AIDS, when the sick were often shunned or abandoned. That fear caused cruelty -- the worst disease of them all.

I learned that death, in and of itself, is not a terrible thing at all -- we just tend to confuse it with the suffering that usually precedes it and the grief that invariably follows it. Death itself is largely an unknown, and as clichéd as it sounds, part of life. There are a lot of decent arguments to be made for the idea that the soul goes through many lifetimes. I personally choose to believe when I close my eyes for the last time, something of me will open them up again one day in another manifestation.

I learned that although too much fear is bad, some is good, even healthy. Children need to be afraid of oncoming traffic, so they won't walk into it. Adults need to be afraid of the damage that can be done by stupid leaders, so that they vote wisely. HIV-negative men should have some fear of all that comes with HIV, so they avoid contracting it. I know that I lost some of my fears to an unhealthy degree, because I did a lot of stupid, risky things that resulted in prison. Fear can be an expression of humility.

I learned that the concern of my family and friends was an expression of love to be appreciated, not bristled at. How could I resent them for not keeping up with the latest developments in treating HIV? This helped me realize that just because it was happening to me didn't mean that everybody else didn't have equally serious concerns. I learned to be compassionate to my friends dealing with diseases in themselves or family members, to ask how they were and listen to the answer, to offer help and then be willing to actually help in a practical way. A friend with ovarian cancer was every bit as scared as I had been -- I used my experience to help alleviate her pain.

I learned to remind myself, every time that I felt tempted to internalize the societal stigma around HIV, that I contracted this disease in the search for human intimacy. Whether the encounter was more lust-based or love-based doesn't matter, I wanted to be close to another consenting adult, and there is never any shame in that. If people insisted on projecting their opinions about acceptable sexual expression onto AIDS, I had no control over that. What I could do is make a choice to stand in the light unapologetically, to protect my brothers by always disclosing my serostatus, never making anyone who chose not to have sex with me as a result feel bad about it. That was their right, just as it was mine not to feel bad or apologetic about my status.

I have learned -- or perhaps decided -- that kindness is the most important spiritual principle there is.

If HIV had never been more than a science fiction fantasy, I might surely have developed this same belief, but I strongly suspect the life I would have lived would have been one far more preoccupied with matters of career and sex; of things I could have and places I could go. The experience of AIDS has taught me like nothing else that what enriches us as spiritual beings is how we treat each other as human beings. But like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, surviving the Wicked Witch of AIDS, it's a lesson I had to learn for myself.


 

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