Stigmas of all sorts have bedevilled humanity for millennia and helped write history. So could they possibly be conquered by something as simple as love?
Well, yes – they sometimes have been. Think of Martin Luther King Jr leading the civil rights movement in the USA or Nelson Mandela spearheading the anti-apartheid transition in South Africa.
And the the same can happen with AIDS, says Sir Elton John.
We need to “be more compassionate to one another, more Christian towards one another, not so hateful to one another,” he once told the BBC during an interview about his book Love is the Cure.
If people showed more understanding and less fear AIDS could be obliterated forever, the rock star philanthropist insisted.
Similar aims were at the heart of the recent US “National Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS” with its theme: “Can love conquer stigma?” Its goals included modelling “unconditional love and compassion to all persons living with and affected by HIV”.
Yet there’s more to compassion than just receiving it. For those who are affected, nurturing their own compassion could be key to their wellbeing, according to recent research. It found “holding a compassionate view of others” is one of four spiritual/religious attitudes “significantly related to long survival with AIDS”.
The other three? A sense of peace, faith in God and the right kind of “religious behaviour” – a reference to the fact that the study noted a negative impact from being condemning and judgmental of oneself and others. Yet a much more positive correlation was also discovered: that between frequency of prayer and longevity.
Such scientific confirmation of the role of spiritual resources in coping with AIDS will encourage their adoption by some who might otherwise be unaware of them. Others, though, already recognise the proven value of compassion and prayer in their own lives.
That was the case for a man who tragically lost his wife to AIDS only to be told by doctors he and his daughter had also contracted the disease and would die of it. On top of that he faced the religious stigma of neighbours convinced that AIDS was sent by God to punish sin.
But one question resounded in his thought: “How can God, Love, punish His innocent child?”
Through intense prayer, and the spiritual growth that resulted from it, he became convinced the divine would never do that. Instead, he concluded, God’s thoughts tell us “how to live with courage and be totally free from fear of all kinds”.
When he and his daughter returned for another check-up neither had the HIV virus any longer.
‘The doctor himself was very surprised, and the test was done three times,” the man recalled.
The grateful father attributed the return of health to a spiritual understanding of identity – one poetically captured in a Mindy Jostyn song called “In His Eyes”, written specially for clients at a New York AIDS treatment center.
In His eyes you’re a radiant vision of beauty
A gemstone cut one of a kind
You’re fine as a diamond, deep as a ruby
Rare as a jade in His mind
No need to believe all you may have been told
No need to live in disguise
You’re brighter than silver, purer than gold
A pearl beyond price in His eyes
Accepting this glimpse of who and what we are in the eyes of God can certainly shield us from the barbs of stigmatisation.
Yet could it also do more? Is there an even deeper stigma that can be unearthed and uprooted?
Yes, one that is faced in every instance of disease – namely the silently recurring thoughts that would drum into us that we are basically material rather than spiritual.
To many – like myself – mentally challenging this stigma is at the heart of prayer, because if we successfully silence the voice of this self-stigmatisation we’re left with nothing but the awareness of being a son or daughter of the divine, as Jesus showed us all to be.
Then, like the freedom fighters who evidenced the practicality of love, we can prove for ourselves whether the spiritual growth that lets us understand that we’re always approved and commended “in His eyes” can heal what’s in our hearts and restore us to health.
This article was first published on the Huffington Post UK as: Is There a Healthier, Healing Way to See Ourselves?