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“I found myself reflecting that people choosing to die for a cause, a concept of spirituality or patriotism, is not a new phenomenon.”

Monthly Aspectarian May 1997

Originally published in The Monthly Aspectarian, Chicago, IL, USA.

The media has sensationalized the recent Heaven’s Gate suicides in classic form, judging the event weird and unimaginable, with the cult members singularly disturbed and led astray by a charismatic leader. I found myself reflecting that people choosing to die for a cause, a concept of spirituality or patriotism, is not a new phenomenon. Against their better instincts, how many millions have marched off to war for "God and country"? Given this historical legacy, it is not so remarkable that the members of Heaven’s Gate attached themselves to a leader and a lofty ideal of life in the hereafter through their suicides. From all the accounts I have read, each person made a conscious choice to die. If anything, perhaps they should be commended for the fact that they did not kill any "non-believers" for their cause. What does this event really precipitate in our collective unconscious? A fear of death, of that thin line between reality and fantasy, ever-present in daily life, but relegated to the background of consciousness? Will some semblance of understanding be provided by dismissing cult members as "Other" to help mediate our panic and surprise? And yet how many of us are committing a long-term suicide plan without any awareness of our actions? How is the consumer-driven ethos of the industrialized world slowly killing off the life of the planet? Each day we squander the resources of the environment without any regard for future generations. Aren’t we all living in a trance, following the charismatic leadership of progress, consumption, a better life, etc. - all the assumptions of Western culture’s beliefs? The anthropomorphic creed we live by is, in some respects, is as far-fetched a belief system as Applewhite’s. Our self-importance is ludicrous given the very small place we inhabit in the universe: do we really believe that our grand plans and spectacular displays of egotism amount to much in this life?

The bottom line is, how we each construct meaning to live our lives and die our deaths has no hard and fast rules. Despite all our theories and creeds, none of us really know why we are on Earth. Belief systems are useful tools for navigating the void of human existence, but they are only tools, not infallible facts. I adhere to Buddhist principles in living my life, but I have no guarantee or proof that this mythology is any truer or wiser than the beliefs of Heaven’s Gate. I return time and again to the question, what am I doing with the life I have been given? Jack London, who died at the age of 40, wrote:

I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of man is to live, not exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.

Was my life worth their deaths, a 95 year old woman asks when she is close to death, thinking back on the thousands of chickens that she ate for dinner over her lifetime? Being a member of the "cult of HIV", I ask myself, has our disease contributed something meaningful to human experience? Has the need for support and care given meaning to the lives of responsive caregivers, both professional and volunteer? Has the sexual nature of the disease shed new light on our understanding of and discourse about sexuality? Has the immediacy of the situation motivated research into the mystery of immunity and a new view of the human body that will benefit us, help us grasp more essentially the sacred, powerful, resilient and fragile nature of the body?

Lawrence LeShan, a psychologist and researcher who has worked with people with cancer for 35 years, began to discover that the health of his patients in traditional psychotherapy was not getting better. He began to alter his approach, deviating from the standard model of focusing on what’s wrong and problematic to:

What is right with this person? What are his or her special and unique ways of being, relating, creating? What style of life would give this person zest, enthusiasm, involvement? How can we work together to find these ways of being, relating and creating? How can we work together so that the patient is living such a full and zestful life that he or she has no more time or energy for psychotherapy?

(Lawrence LeShan, Cancer as a Turning Point (New York: Plume, 1994) )

In other words, how can we break the trance of negative beliefs and get on with living the life we were born to live? LeShan found that about half of his patients went into long-term remission once he began to adopt this new strategy, finding that enhancing life actually extends life. We can identify with our problems, our limitations, our disease, or we can begin to embrace the riskier path of involvement with, and commitment to, our inherent power. As Ma Jaya, the American Hindu teacher who has devoted much of her ministry to AIDS and the gay community has proclaimed very succinctly, "Stop being AIDS and start being your Life".

When our fear of death is replaced by advancing a life of purpose, it can begin to challenge our contemporary notions of health. I had a client with AIDS (Mike) who, in many respects, was the exemplary model of someone who was "taking responsibility" for his health. He worked out daily, cooked all of his meals at home with nothing but organic meats and produce, took his combination of meds and vitamins, went to therapy, etc. He didn’t eat out at restaurants to avoid unclean foods, carried bottled water with him everywhere, had, in many respects, strong boundaries and a fighting spirit. He missed having a sexual relationship, but did not want to get involved with someone who might die on him. In fact, he avoided any sexual contact so as not to be exposed to any other "pathogens". Underneath all these reasons was a profound sadness about all the deaths he had witnessed, an unrelenting grief which he wanted to protect himself from. Yet he felt very isolated and alone.

One day, I met George, a well-known AIDS activist who provided a counterpoint to Mike. During our interview, he smoked incessantly. I asked myself, how could someone with HIV smoke 2 packs of cigarettes a day, knowing how unhealthy it was? It seemed to be self-destructive behavior. Yet George was clearly living a very spiritually motivated life. All of his energy was devoted to the AIDS movement; as he said, how could he not involve himself with this crisis, this is what was happening now. He clearly had his life purpose on track, there was no slowing this man down from his mission. When I saw him at a conference a week later, I noticed the vibrancy of his interactions and social connections. (Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, from what I’ve heard, lives on black coffee and cigarettes.)

To energetically compare Mike and George made me question my notions of health. Perhaps connectedness and purpose outweigh, or at least equal, the deleterious effects of the substances we ingest or the viruses we harbor. As Herbert Benson has noted in "Timeless Healing" (Herbert Benson, Timeless Healing: The Power and Biology of Belief, Scribner: New York, 1996), the brain responds to the environment, the body, and the brain itself. The first two are referred to as "bottom-up events", and the third as "top-down". In other words, the memories and beliefs of the brain can trigger chemical changes in a manner similar to inner genes and outer substances from the environment. Our perceptions, fantasies, memories and images are a systemic pharmacoepia, a crucial factor in healthcare.

The turning point toward health for many individuals who have diseases that are demoralizing and depleting happens at the soul level. It has to do with discovering reasons to live, a will that is determined to do so, faith that it is possible, and wise choices about what to do. How do we know what matters to us? How do we know what we love-when we have spent years not listening to the protestations of our bodies, our feelings, or our dreams, or ignoring inner messages of deep unhappiness? (Jean Shinoda Bolen, Close to the Bone: Life-Threatening Illness and the Search for Meaning, Scribner: New York, 1996)

The tragedy of AIDS has not necessarily been that so many people have died in their prime; the real tragedy is that we have not questioned our assumptions about life, death, purpose and relativity. In the quest for a medical cure for AIDS, we have overlooked the purpose of staying alive. Are we "supposed" to live until a ripe old age to justify our existence, to be whole people? There seems to be this unspoken assumption that longevity is the purpose of life. Even in medical parlance, the notion of quality of life usually takes a backseat to quantity. What if George dies a year earlier than Mike due to his smoking? So what? I can no longer measure the value of a life in the quantitative values of chronological time. Jesus died when he was 33, and he certainly lived a full life! If I died tomorrow at the age of 42, I would feel a certain regret at not having lived more. But I feel like I’ve had much to celebrate in this life. The same would be true if I died 2 or 10 years ago. When is enough... enough?

Certainly HIV has been a catalyst to truly care for myself, it was a good initial motivation and initiation, but it has fallen away as the central orienting principle of life as I experience more of the mystery of living. As I get older, I give myself more permission to go out on edges, to be less a "person with HIV" and a "person with life", that incredible path foisted upon me at birth that I am still navigating with trepidation at times, curiosity and excitement at other times. What do I want more of that has been unrealized? Do I cling to life out of need, desire, or merely habit? "Thank you, it was a fabulous show; but can I please have about 500 encores?" When is enough ... enough?

Each day, 250,000 people are born into this world. Cells are daily proliferating wildly due to some master plan. In the recent research on apoptosis, or programmed cell death, we see that all life forms also have a built-in program for death. The inherent self-destruct message within the genes is part of the cellular level of healing, especially since this ability to kill is what also protects the integrity of the body’s functioning. In terms of the global family, the inevitability of death is necessary for the perpetuation of life on the planet. What more evidence do we need for getting on with the mystery of living?

My own resolve for living fluctuates. I go through periods where nothing matters, and I feel imprisoned by my personal dramas. I can lose sight of my vision and purpose, and one day blurs into the next. I know these are trances that I have the power to break, yet I become swamped by my own lack of assertiveness and ability to push through the inertia. Starhawk, the Wiccan priestess has maintained, "Magic is the art of changing consciousness at will." When I am in these states of mind, I forget my power as a magician, I forget that I have the possibility of change. I know that the responsibility is mine and to take it is an on-going discipline.

When I tackle my resistance head-on, I feel my own mastery. When I risk rejection and disappointment to move in positive directions, I feel my own strength. Fueled by my belief that I matter and by the feedback I get from the world, I take the next step. The spiritual experiences that I have through art, nature and human contact continually revive my curiosity and interest in living. And even when that zest is dim, I feel myself as a fallow field, more attuned to the slower movements of life rather than the fireworks of "transformational" experiences.

As often as possible, I take some moments at sunset time to turn my attention to the changing light, to stand at attention and reach my arms to the sky and simply say out loud, "Thank-you for this day." This declaration is especially meaningful when it has been a difficult or fragmenting day. In this ritual, I continually re-affirm my appreciation and gratefulness for all that life presents to me, the highs and the lows, the outstanding and the mundane. I still have much to learn and give in this body/vehicle, and continue to be fed by life. And when is enough...enough?

    Tell me, what else should I have done?

    Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

    Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

    Mary Oliver, "The Summer Day", in House of Light (Boston: Beacon Press, 1990)

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Jamie McHugh.