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Living in a spiritual vacuum - and being OK

Wednesday, 23 September 2015 Written by // Bob Leahy - Editor Categories // Newly Diagnosed, Spirituality, Lifestyle, Living with HIV, Opinion Pieces, Bob Leahy

Bob Leahy asks what are the connections between being diagnosed with HIV, spirituality and religion? He see it in many but somehow seems to have missed the boat himself, he thinks.

Living in a spiritual vacuum - and being OK

Next week I am part of a panel at an HIV retreat on the topic “Mind, Body and Spirit” - or something like that. I said I would be happy to natter on about mind and body as I have both. But ask me to talk about spirituality and – well I hope others will jump in with a more personal take than my outsider’s one. 

I’m not, after all, a spiritual person. No time for religion, not much time for other forms of spirituality. I’m unfettered by anything I can’t see, feel or touch; I’m living in the here and now, mostly uninterested in the rest. When we die, we die.

But having to address a gathering where spirituality is on the agenda made me sufficiently interested to think more about its impact. So I did a quick poll of those in my long term survivors’ group to see what impact spirituality had on their lives. Turns out from this and other sources I consulted that it’s important for many. HIV definitely changes us in many ways and it looks as if one of those ways is often in the forging of a relationship with, or at least a belief in, some sort of "higher being".

That “higher being” of course doesn’t necessarily translate to god, although the concept of a higher or supreme being is a hallmark of religions across the spectrum, from Christianity to Hinduism to Islam and back again. In fact in the circles I mix in, “god” isn’t very popular but the concept of someone or something that pulls the strings is.

Do a belief in god and HIV coexist very comfortably? For some they clearly do. Others, including yours truly, might think that being diagnosed with HIV is hardly the act of a benign god-like figure, if there is indeed one, just as 9/11 or the Jamestown Massacre seems a bizarre act of someone looking out for us. If there is a purpose for everything, as religiosos will claim, what was the purpose of 9/11?

Closer to home, what was the purpose of me being diagnosed with HIV? That kind of question, as old as time itself, is my stumbling block for buying in to the concept of a higher power. And I don’t think any religion I know of answers that kind of question in a way that resonates with the non-believers very convincingly.

The list of atrocities that higher powers supposedly benignly throw at us is endless. 39 million AIDS deaths sent to test us?  Jailing people with HIV sent to test us?  HIV stigma sent to test us?

"Bad luck is how I got HIV and good luck is how I survived HIV.  Nothing else makes sense to me."

My stance reflects siding with Rationality over Faith. It’s nothing all that new. My own version, for what it’s worth, is that what happens to us is governed not by a supreme being but by fate, by chance, by multiple roles of the figurative dice.  Bad luck is how I got HIV and good luck is how I survived HIV.  Nothing else makes sense to me.

Consider this. First it’s not easy to transmit HIV, and in the normal course, I likely wouldn’t have got it. But bad luck intervened and I had a short term relationship with a man who, unbeknown to both of us (this was 1990) had the bad luck to have AIDS. He died a few years after we broke up but the die had been cast. But, and here’s where the good luck came in, I was diagnosed in 1993, perfect timing to jump onto the protease inhibitor bandwagon, in 1996. So 1990, 1993,and 1996 – dates that might appear random but fate rolled them for me in a very lucky combination.

Randomness, after all is a recognized means of determining events that occurs in many branches of science, including biology and the theory of evolution. Fate, luck or randomness seems in fact to readily explain many extraordinary events and it certainly seems to fit the profile of HIV transmission, progression and prognosis. That god or god substitutes are somehow involved seems an incredibly awkward fit with the science.

But does even thinking such thoughts reveal a spiritual nature? Some have said yes, I say no,

That’s not to deny that an HIV diagnosis and spiritual and emotional growth aren’t common, and often “a good thing”. Ask any group of people living with HIV whether they have grown because of their HIV diagnosis, even whether HIV has been good for them, as I often do in interviews, and more often than not, you will get an answer in the affirmative. Simply put, an HIV diagnosis is a jolt to the system which is powerful enough to turn a life around in all the right ways. But I‘d argue that we do that on our own steam. Why give a higher power any credit?

I guess that for an atheist like me, the bottom line is believe what you want. Whatever belief helps you is probably good. Hopefully that belief does few people harm (which as it happens rules out many current religions.)

Borrowing the values of some religions, while not necessarily buying into the whole shebang, seems pretty OK though. Christian values, for instance, are often hard to argue with. I profess to having them – all those mornings at Sunday school were not totally wasted, it seems – and arguably they serve me well.  But Christianity itself? Nah.

“Religion” said Karl Marx famously “is the opium of the people”. That always struck me as a bit dismissive, but it could also apply to any form of spiritual beliefs. Maybe John Lennon said it better “whatever gets you thru the night .“ Me, I'll settle for a good pillow.