Our theme for this Thanksgiving issue is gratitude, yet using this space to chirp about how grateful I am to have survived HIV for so long does not feel right. For one thing, there are times, just like everyone else, whether healthy or ill, positive or negative, when I’m simply not that excited to be alive. Surely I’m allowed the same feelings of hurt, loneliness and depression that afflict everyone else. Conversely, one needn’t have trembled on the doorstep of death to be high on life. An engaging crew of exemplary HIV survivors and I tackled these issues, over turkey and cornbread, in a fearless Thanksgiving roundtable.
As I mention there, I know most people think HIV survivors should be grateful for every breath we take, and we should. But sometimes, when I hear this message, I also hear an implied discounting of what we deserve. Why should we be “grateful” for better drugs, for an end to stigma? Why should we feel “blessed” for any hard-fought legal protections—for fundamental social change to combat economic injustice and disease?
The message is that we’re lucky to be alive, so we should just shut the hell up. That message, however, is a way of squashing the moral insights we who have been ill have earned—through living with sickness or through coming close to death. We live in a society that is unjust to the impoverished and the ill—as the response to Hurricane Katrina so vividly demonstrated—and values most the rich and healthy. Those who have suffered that injustice have learned this in a way most well people will never understand.
I have survived because I am privileged enough to have access to quality health care, something most people with HIV do not enjoy. But survival also has required hard work, an effort of body, mind and soul that only other people with a serious chronic disease can appreciate. In this sense, the healthy can be very ignorant indeed.
So this Thanksgiving, be grateful, for sure. But do it on your own terms and be wary of those who would proscribe your gratitude list.
One true blessing I have had in my post-Lazarus years has been an enduring friendship and professional collaboration with Walter Armstrong, who had been POZ’s editor in chief since 1998. During his tenure, Walter broke important stories, nurtured young writers and emboldened the voice of the HIV community.
Last month was his last issue as editor in chief. He has decided to take a break—and write a book, I hope—but he’ll continue to contribute editorially to POZ. He has been a brilliant editor, passionate activist and a beloved colleague. We are lucky to have worked with him, and it is with particular gratitude to him that we dedicate this issue of POZ. How appropriate that its theme is gratitude. But, come to think of it, I’ve just fallen into the gratitude trap. With his fierce intelligence and integrity, Walter Armstrong is precisely what our community— and our readership—deserves.
Sean O' Brien Strub