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Self-Esteem and Hope

Spirituality Column #15

June 30, 1996

Self-esteem is an essential ingredient in creating and maintaining hope, health and a quality life with HIV/AIDS. Many people living with HIV/AIDS have problems with self-esteem. I know I have. And the diagnosis of AIDS didn't do a thing to enhance my self-image. On the contrary, I experienced it as a real challenge to my belief in my own self-worth. Bottom line, my diagnosis raised some real self-doubts about my pride as a gay man.

In an article from 1984, I wrote that on the day of my diagnosis "I found myself feeling (for a moment) that if I had just stayed in my closet, if I had never come out, if I had never had sex, then I would not have AIDS, and I would not be facing my mortality quite so soon..." I worked through those feelings with a therapist, and came to the conclusion that "I may not have contracted AIDS if I had never come out. But the closet would have suffocated me. My spirit would have died. For all the gay community's flaws, for all our brokenness, for all the risks involved in being out, for any disappointment in the community, I would not miss my gay experience... even a deadly disease like AIDS cannot kill my pride in my people."

Over a decade later, a lot of people with HIV, gay or not, still go through some guilt feelings, whether rational or not, that somehow they caused this. I personally know a number of gay men who know that they sero-converted long after they knew about HIV prevention. This can lead to feelings of guilt and shame.

Guilt does not lead to a quality life with HIV. Self-esteem does. So we must somehow learn to work through the guilt, forgive ourselves (if there is indeed something to feel guilty about), and move onto feeling good enough about ourselves to create and maintain a quality life.

God loves us, just the way we are. God is able and willing to forgive us, so why do so many of us have such a difficult time forgiving ourselves? God loves us and wants the best for us. God believes in us. The challenge for many of us seems to be believing in ourselves the way God does.

Low self-esteem can prevent people with HIV/AIDS from doing everything possible to create the conditions for healing. Low self-esteem can prevent people from taking the most basic care of themselves. Low self-esteem can shorten life, because if you don't believe in yourself, or love yourself, then you are not going to do the things you need to do to stay alive, and to heal.

It doesn't matter how you contracted HIV. All of us who have it face the same challenge of learning to live with it, of doing everything possible to stay healthy or get healthy. It doesn't matter to God how you contracted to HIV. God loves you, and wants you to fight for your life. Your life is worth fighting for!

The biggest challenge to my self-esteem has been the homophobia I learned as a child. I knew I was gay from as far back as I can remember... as a matter of fact, my father wrote a letter to my grandmother when I was a year old. My dad was the varsity wrestling coach at Phillips Academy Andover. In this letter, he wrote,

"Dear Mother, We're so excited because little Stevie said his first words today. We had the wrestling team down for dinner, and as they started to arrive, Stevie sat up in his high chair, and said just as clearly as could be, 'Boys! Boys! Boys!'"

I remember being called a fairy for the first time in the second grade. I knew the other children didn't mean it kindly, and I also knew somehow that they were right! I had already learned to feel ashamed of my homosexual feelings.

When I finally came out as an adult, through the Metropolitan Community Church, someone reminded me of that scene in "Peter Pan" when Tinker Bell is dying. Peter turns to the audience and says, "Tinker Bell is dying because people don't believe in fairies. If you believe in fairies, clap your hands and bring Tinker Bell back to life!" And of course, for decades, people, homophobic or not, have clapped wildly, and Tinker Bell comes back to life.

A lot of good fairies have already died, as well as a lot of other good people. Those of us who continue to live with HIV/AIDS, whether we are fairies or not, need to believe in ourselves, in our worth, in our right to have full, long lives, in spite of what some segments of our society might say. We need to believe that God loves us just as we were created.

June is the traditional month of Lesbian and Gay Pride. When we live with HIV/AIDS, that pride is an essential ingredient to our health and wholeness. But this doesn't apply just to gay and lesbian persons living with HIV/AIDS.

No matter our sexual orientation, no matter how we contracted HIV, we need to believe in ourselves enough to do the work of staying alive! Believe in yourself enough to engage in life, to fight for life, to do everything you can to create the conditions for healing in your body!

There's a legend about a long-winded preacher who stunned his congregation one Sunday when he stood up for the sermon, said "God loves you," and sat back down. The people in church were shocked... not just because of the surprising brevity of the sermon, but because of the profound simplicity, and the implications of the message.

Think about what it would mean for you if you really, honestly, deeply believed that God loves you, just the way you are!

The great theologian Paul Tillich wrote about the challenge of accepting our acceptance. It is one of the most challenging aspects of having faith in a God who loves us so much. Accept your acceptance. Believe you are loved. Start acting as if God really loves you. How would you behave differently, how would your life be different if you really believed, deep in your heart, that God loves you?

When I started to believe it deeply, I began to feel empowered to help myself. I began to feel that God was with me, helping me do everything I needed to do to deal with cancer and AIDS. I began to believe that God wanted me alive, not dead. I began to feel hope.

The ability to take the action necessary to live hopefully with HIV/AIDS is one of the great rewards of faith, of believing in God's love for you. Faith works! And it's available to everyone!

If you are having a struggle with self-esteem issues, seek help! Find a therapist, a pastoral counselor, a doctor, or even a good, loving friend, and get the help you need to lift your self-esteem. This is essential to a hopeful, healthy life with HIV/AIDS.

Once again, your life is worth fighting for!

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