One of the toughest things I‘ve ever done was pay several visits to someone dying of AIDS.
I was not with him in his final hours.
But I was in his company enough to witness the terror in his eyes as he was losing his battle with a disease that makes no distinction on the basis of sexuality or race.
That was a one-time experience for me - it hasn’t been repeated except in flashbacks. So I can hardly imagine the sense of loss that haunts those who have been deprived of several cherished friendships in this way.
British superstar Elton John, for example, counts himself among the latter. He movingly revealed at a conference earlier this year in Washington, D.C., how he watched friends like actor Rock Hudson and rock star Freddy Mercury die of AIDS at a time when he, too, was putting himself at risk of contracting HIV.
Reflecting on his survival, the singer-songwriter said: “By all rights I shouldn’t be here today. I should be dead – six foot under in a wooden box.”
Thankfully that never occurred. A song he co-wrote with lyricist Bernie Taupin says it so well: “I’m still standing better than I ever did, looking like a true survivor, feeling like a little kid”.
That Top Ten hit was about being rescued from the rubble of a failed love rather than escaping the ravages of reckless behavior. Yet it’s the latter to which Elton John credits still being alive. He told the conference how 22 years ago he was saved “from the depths of his addiction” by people “who cared for him”. He has been “sober” ever since.
Perhaps the greatest legacy of that awakening has been the Elton John AIDS Foundation which followed soon afterwards and has since raised over $275 million. It supports “grassroots, community-based organizations” providing “HIV prevention, treatment, and care services” and has also helped “eradicate AIDS-related discrimination in 55 countries.”
It’s heartening to hear the hope articulated that the AIDS epidemic can be ended. But how? His recent book suggests that “Love is the Cure.”
What Elton John advocates is the kind of love that will break the stigma surrounding the disease. He told the BBC he wants people to “be more compassionate to one another, more Christian towards one another, not so hateful to one another.”’
Compassion for those who are HIV positive is crucial. Yet compassion by sufferers could also be vital. Recent research found that “holding a compassionate view of others” is one of four spiritual/religious attitudes that were “significantly related to long survival with AIDS.”
The other three were a sense of peace, faith in God and religious behavior. In the latter case the study noted a negative impact from being religiously “condemning and judgmental of others” or “of self”, while it found a positive correlation between frequency of prayer and longevity.
That could suggest the more healthy option is listening for the divine mind’s thoughts in quiet communion rather than paying heed to hellfire sermons about what He thinks - whether preached by internal or external voices.
The Bible vividly portrays the difference between the two on several occasions. For instance, there is the dramatic story of Jesus engaging with a pious crowd bent on stoning a woman caught committing adultery. He dispersed those who were pointing accusatory fingers by getting them to admit to themselves they were not qualified to pass judgment.
Then he turned to the woman and also told her: “Neither do I condemn you”.
I also think of this story as instructive of the struggle we can often face within our own thinking. When I’ve wrestled with the lure of choices that could prove detrimental to my well-being, I’ve learned to do in the privacy of my own thoughts what Jesus did in practice. I take a mental stand against the clamoring of thoughts that would want to stone me for being tempted. I treat them as unqualified to harangue me because they don’t represent the voice of spiritual good. Instead I listen for a divine sense within telling me God doesn’t condemn any of His children.
Then I feel strengthened to act on what Jesus told the woman next: “Go, and sin no more”.
But what does that mean? Sin seems to be such a loaded word nowadays.
I’ve found a helpful guideline in the balanced reasoning of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, whose teachings emphasize the spiritual love at the heart of the Bible. She wrote: “Pleasure is no crime except when it strengthens the influence of bad inclinations or lessens the activities of virtue.” Her textbook on healing, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” describes the tendency to go along with self-destructive choices as “a terrible mistake”.
Such mistakes need to be corrected, of course. But like in mathematics, once they are, then the problem can be solved. That’s what I’ve repeatedly seen on my spiritual journey.
If I had my time again with my friend, I’d want to share that with him. I’d also tell him how I’d found that when our thoughts shift we can glimpse God’s profound love for all. And when we truly want to hear His/Her guidance, it’s always there for us and 100% helpful - just waiting to point out the exit ramps that lead us off the many and varied highways and byways of self-destruction.
I’d also share with him an inspiring experience I’ve read of an African man told by doctors he and his daughter, having been diagnosed HIV positive, would soon follow his wife in losing their lives to AIDS.
He said that although faced with some fellow countrymen’s conviction AIDS was sent by God as a punishment for sin, he instead asked himself ‘How can God, Love, punish His innocent child?’
Following intense prayer and deep spiritual growth, the man came to see God’s thoughts very differently. “They tell us” he said, “how to live with courage and be totally free from fear of all kinds”.
When they returned to their doctor for a further check-up he was told that neither he nor his daughter had the HIV virus any more.
“The doctor himself was very surprised, and the test was done three times,” he said.
What this man learned is echoed in the lyrics of a song by another favorite musician of mine, Mindy Jostyn. She co-wrote “In His Eyes” with husband Jacob Brackman for the clients of a New York City AIDS treatment center:
In His eyes you’re a radiant vision of beauty
A gemstone cut one of a kind
You’re fine as a diamond, deep as a ruby
Rare as a jade in His mind
No need to believe all you may have been told
No need to live in disguise
You’re brighter than silver, purer than gold
A pearl beyond price in His eyes...
Now and forever, that light never dies
You’re dearly beloved in His eyes.
World AIDS Day is Dec. 1.