December 1st is World AIDS Day.
I'm cranky about all the days. I remember as a kid being interested by church calenders where almost every day was a Saints day. Something that might be said of Christianity is how much graphic violence is contained in the collective memory. The calender of Saints Days is a rather lurid list of gruesome ways of death.
In Sunday School we very often sang I Sing a Song of the Saints of God. I think the money line is:
they were all of them saints of God, and I mean,Perhaps it was simply my own morbid personality, but the line that always caught my childish attention was:
God helping, to be one too.
and one was slain by a fierce wild beastAnd maybe it was the fact of singing this hymn so close to Sunday dinner that being a "saint of God" and a "big roast beef" are pressed together in my mind.
There is so much suffering in the world. That much is as true as it ever was. Yet there is great splendor in being alive and that, I suspect, is as true as it ever was. Looking back from my decidedly un-churched present, I Sing a Song of the Saints of God seems a rather good choice of hymns for children to sing. It doesn't spare them the suffering in life, but encourages them to imagine their lives as significant.
Tomorrow I will be attending a fund raiser at the Brew Haus at the Iron City Brewery for The Africa Project. I'll wear a red ribbon. I'll wear a ribbon to remember all those suffering because of AIDS and I'll wear a ribbon to remind me to try to do something to solve and ameliorate this crisis.
I'm old enough to remember when we first began hearing about AIDS. I have not always been brave about talking about it. In the mid 1980's I went back to school to finish my college degree, having flunked out the first go at university education. I had to present a speech in one of my classes and chose to speak about the importance to public health of confidential HIV screening.
In between my flunking out of college and my return I had tried to renovate a house in a very poor community. I had lots of ideas about energy efficiency and romantic notions fueled by a Whole Earth Catalog aesthetic. I was "run out of town on a rail." To this day I don't really understand the dynamics of it all. I was never physically injured, but there was quite a little violence directed towards me by way of property theft and destruction. One evening sleeping in my bedroom some sort of explosive was thrown on my porch blowing out all the windows in my bedroom. Harassment centering around the taunt "Hey, gay John" was more or less continuous. That's only part of the story because in so many ways my relationships with my neighbors and the people in the community were very warm and cordial. More than anything, I suspect it was my earnestness which made me a laughingstock. And in truth I look back at those days with some amusement.
However, giving my speech to the Public Speaking class, my face was red and sweat poured down my brow. I injected nothing personal into the speech. I did not tell them that much of what I knew about AIDS came from giving blood and fluid samples as well as all sorts of other tests twice a year at the Pitt Men's Study. The study is still ongoing as part of the Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study. I gave my speech and was graded well, but in hindsight what I remember most about it is how weak my knees were.
A very big obstacle in the way of confronting the challenges of AIDS is shame.
We are social creatures, so ostracism is rather universally feared. When ends are used to justify means it always seems to lead to trouble. There's no doubt that avoiding shame is a very powerful motivator, but attempts to control people with shame are fraught with danger. My sister would sometimes taunt me as a child telling me that I really wasn't part of the family, but rather delivered by aliens with a stern warning they had to keep me. Power over others is somehow delicious. About those who seek to defend all that's good, right and proper through shaming others, one is often left wondering whether they themselves have any shame at all.
Standing up to bullies is very hard. It's not because bullies tend to have lots of allies, nobody really likes a bully. But bullies use as their shield and weapon norms and mores which nobody really wants to challenge. But when challenged bullies often do step down with less resistance than expected; probably because bullies know as well as the rest of us they're not really liked.
There is a saying about courage: "Courage is not the absence of fear, but the ability to act despite fear." which I can't seem to find a reference for whom originally said it. A similar quotation is credited to Ambrose Hollingworth Redmoon who is remembered by some of us Americans "of a certain age" as the manager of a psychedelic rock band, Quicksilver Messenger Service. Redmoon was paralyzed in an automobile accident in 1966. He was a writer, but not much of his writing was ever published. In a 1991 issue of the magazine Gnosis an essay, No Peaceful Warriors, he wrote:
"Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than one's fear. The timid presume it is lack of fear that allows the brave to act when the timid do not. But to take action when one is not afraid is easy. To refrain when afraid is also easy. To take action regardless of fear is brave."Observing World AIDS Day requires the courage to believe that the lives of our fellow humankind are valuable and the bravery to take action on behalf of people who live in shame because of AIDS. World AIDS Day is not an obligation rather an invitation to be brave. I think it's very much like the hymn of my childhood; where despite "fierce wild beasts" a'slaying, saints are portrayed as a joyous lot. It's in that sense I wish you a merry World AIDS Day.