January 31, 1996
Fear is not limited to those living with HIV/AIDS. Fear is a major reason for the harassment and prejudice against people living with HIV/AIDS. This virus touches two particularly sensitive fears: sex and death.
As a society, we in the U.S.A. have inherited a puritan streak which prevents many from facing the issues of sexuality which HIV raises. And this fear prevents the education that right now is the only effective vaccine we have against HIV.
Our society is so afraid of death, that we hide the dying in hospitals, nursing homes, and hospices. While there are people who die surrounded by loved ones, my experience as a chaplain at an AIDS hospice in Los Angeles has shown me how many people in the dying process are abandoned by loved ones. The primary reason is fear.
Even in the lesbian and gay community, there is still a lot of fear around HIV and AIDS. Some gay men are so scared of HIV that they have become celibate, or even gone back into the closet. Many lesbians and gay men have seen so many friends waste away and die from the complications of HIV that they're afraid of watching it happen yet again. Some people can become paralyzed by this fear, fall into denial, refuse to listen or read anything more about it, and turn their backs on friends who have no choice but to face living with HIV/AIDS.
For those of us who are living with HIV or AIDS, there are even more reasons to be afraid. There's the fear of unknown infections that may hit. There's the fear of being abandoned by friends and family. There's also the fear of that "cosmic" loneliness where we realize the most loving person in the world cannot have our spinal taps or chemotherapy or go through the wasting process in our place. Persons living with HIV/AIDS fear the loss of control over our bodily functions, our careers, and our lives. We fear the suffering and pain that we've seen others go through before us. Many of us fear doctors and hospitals. Most of us fear dementia. Many fear death. Fear causes some persons with HIV/AIDS to lie around waiting to die, not doing anything to help themselves with whatever time may be left.
In the face of all these fears, there is one thing which I know from experience works, and that is faith. One friend, who died several years ago, and who loved studying the Bible, told me that the Bible says, "Do not be afraid" 365 times... once for every day of the year! She actually counted!
There are two things to note here: first of all, fear is a perfectly natural, human reaction. There wouldn't be so many "Do not be afraid"'s if it weren't a very common feeling. Secondly, faith is an effective tool in facing fear. Jesus says in Mark 5:36, "Fear not; only believe." OK, but what are we supposed to believe?
Believe that God is with you in living with HIV/AIDS. God did not give you this condition, a virus did. God can give you strength and courage to face bone marrow biopsies, surgery, and toxic treatments. God is with you if you are lying sick in bed. God will be with you even as you die. Sometimes caregivers become the vehicles of God's grace, and we know God is with us because of the kindness of these people. Sometimes we know that God is with us because in the midst of physical suffering or loneliness, we feel a sudden peace beyond all understanding.
Believe that God loves you, just the way you are. God knows we all have areas in which we need to grow. God still has an infinite capacity to love us. That love can conquer all fear.
In I John 4:18, it is written, "There is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out all fear." When we open our hearts to God's perfect love, our fear dissolves. Again, that love can be experienced through our caregivers, our family, and our friends.
Sometimes when we are scared, it helps to focus on God's love through prayer. "Pray constantly," as Paul suggests in I Thessalonians 5: 17 (RSV). Find a short scripture verse, or a short prayer, which can be repeated with each breath. Focus on your breathing, and continually repeat your prayer. I made it through many biopsies, spinal taps, and chemotherapy sessions praying "Lord Jesus Christ, have love upon me, a good fairy." When I was close to death from adrenal insufficiency in 1985, I prayed this prayer over and over again, and I was able to focus on my faith rather than my fear.
So if you are living with HIV or AIDS, "Fear not; only believe." Believe that God is with you, that God loves you, and that God will give you everything you need to face whatever challenges this disease may throw at you.
If you love someone living with HIV or AIDS, "Fear not; only believe." Believe that you can translate your fear into loving acts of kindness. As you focus on loving your friend or family member with HIV/AIDS, the fear will fall away.
If you have lost someone to the complications of AIDS, "Fear not, only believe." Believe that no one can take away the love and the experiences you have shared with your loved one(s). Believe that God can heal even the pain of grief. Believe that you will see them again, in eternal life.
Life is hard. Fear is real. We have a choice about how to respond. The Rev. William Sloane Coffin has said, "We can choose to be scared to death, or scared to life." We can let our fear paralyze us, or we can let it motivate us to do everything we can to keep hope alive.
Whatever you're afraid of, love yourself enough to try believing in God's loving presence with you! I know that God's love casts out all fear. I have been living with HIV/AIDS for fourteen years, and I can still dance! I am still fully alive!
I am absolutely convinced, to paraphrase Paul, that nothing in this life, not even AIDS, death, or grief, not even fear, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Copyright 1996 by the Rev. A. Stephen Pieters