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The Spiritual Lessons of HIV

Summer 2009

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 and 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 they couldn't fulfill. But that I did live endows 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 been able had I not been challenged by this disease. And I can ask the question, "So, what have I learned?"

I learned 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 kind of 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 that 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 and 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 they vote more wisely. HIV-negative men should have some fear of all that comes with HIV so they avoid contracting it. I know I lost some of my fears to an unhealthy degree because I did a lot of 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 did not mean that everybody else may not have equally serious concerns. I learned to be compassionate toward my friends who were dealing with disease in themselves or family members, to ask how they were, listen to the answer and actually be willing to help in a practical way. A friend with ovarian cancer was every bit as scared as I had been with HIV, and I could use my experience to help alleviate her pain.

I learned to remind myself, every time I felt tempted to internalize the societal stigma around HIV, that I had 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 unapologetically in the light, to protect my brothers by always disclosing my serostatus, and by never making anyone who chose not to have sex with me as a result of my disclosure 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; the one trait that all religious traditions ascribe to the God of their understanding. (I don't know any atheists who object to the elevation of that idea either.)

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. Unlike anything else, the experience of AIDS has taught me 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 is a lesson I had to learn for myself.

Mark Olmsted is a freelance writer and editor who can be contacted via

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This article was provided by Being Alive. It is a part of the publication Being Alive Newsletter. Visit Being Alive's website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.
See Also
10 Things You Can Do to Enhance Your Emotional Well-Being
More on Getting Support From Religion / Spirituality

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