Of all diseases, HIV/AIDS is one of the most notorious, most stigmatic, and most devastating. It kills slowly, with precision and vigor. It arrives unwanted, and it departs in a wake of mourning and sorrow. AIDS—the scourge of generations—may now be better controlled (or contained), but there is a threat that has not diminished. This is the peril we should recognize: referring to AIDS as the enemy, the menace, or the tyrant when all we are really scared of is how it so very inconveniently reveals unsightly dirty laundry we thought we washed clean in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
I assert this position not as a homage to the modern idyllic relativism in order to be “politically correct”. What we really need is a truer and deeper understanding, not the kind we find so transparently appropriate in obligatory classroom discussion or at dinner parties and fundraiser galas. Rather this is a desire born out of seeing and feeling in books and portraits or witnessed in broken families and economic systems around the world that which is the far-reaching and incredibly painful wrath of a disease humanity cannot cure.
What we really need is a truer and deeper understanding, not the kind we find so transparently appropriate in obligatory classroom discussion or at dinner parties and fundraiser galas.
To start, consider that for those infected with HIV/AIDS, time is everything. The time between the establishment of the infection and actual emergence of symptoms can be anywhere from two to 11 years. It is the AIDS patient’s everyday reality that even such minor sicknesses as the common cold or flu could turn fatal. Fear is powerful and pervasive, and when staring it in the face one does not need challenge from the disquieted fears of others voiced through judgment, pity, or insensitivity.
Also, do not try to justify HIV/AIDS infection. Because no matter what a person’s past or circumstances look like, it is not anyone’s place to say or indicate whether someone “deserves” AIDS or not. Never stoop to that level. Our ability to define such things is incredibly weak, and your righteousness is not proven by the misfortune—self-inflicted or otherwise—of those around you.
Maybe some will remember the strong social and emotional stigma, an embarrassment by association, surrounding the AIDS epidemic in the late ‘80s that still exists to this day. Newsweek movie critic David Ansen wrote a moving piece on the subject called “AIDS and the Arts: A Lost Generation” in 1993 based on the AIDS-related death of Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev.
In a memoir of the article, Ansen recounted how AIDS was “a subject from which many people chose to avert their eyes. President Ronald Reagan was infamous for never mentioning the problem in public. For some, it was a blight that happened only to those people”. His purpose in writing the article, which morphed from Nureyev’s obituary to an in-depth examination of the Arts, was motivated by Ansen’s revelation that “particularly in the first decade of the scourge, many obituaries would ‘tactfully’ omit the cause of death: there was a stigma, a shame, surrounding HIV infection”.
I do believe we have progressed from the time Ansen wrote about. Obviously, there is much to be said for current work in the medical field, and many good people also devote their time in appropriate ways just as many good friends, family members, congregations, and organizations stand by both patients and the hurting loved ones of HIV/AIDS victims. To not recognize these individual and group efforts would be inappreciative, indeed. But this essay is directed most specifically to those who are not touched, who do not have any particular reason for wearing the red ribbon and still choose to remain ignorant about it.
My purpose is to say yes, you are obligated, even required as a member of your society, your civilization, and your world to remember AIDS and its current and fallen heroes. Yes, prevent it. Yes, try to find a cure. But most of all try to understand beyond yourself, whether you have experienced HIV/AIDS firsthand or not, and that will drive the rest. So here is to understanding and remembrance, or—as the case may be—remembering to understand.
I strongly recommend reading the full version of “David Ansen Recalls When AIDS Silenced the Arts” at Newsweek.
For more information about World AIDS day, visit the official website.
Cover photo via Red and Black.