I see the world differently now. My eyes are open, I am awake, and I see with new eyes. Living in a rural South African community since 2005 has transformed me. I have been a witness to the deaths of hundreds of people who fell victim to a virus while doing home-based care. Their deaths came after long battles with tuberculosis, phenomena or meningitis. In the process they were stigmatized, isolated and left alone to die. Their deaths have left an indelible impression on me. The virus takes your life slowly and often leaves you stigmatized, and lonely in the process. So what has a deadly microscopic virus taught me? Read on.
For five years I was the coordinator of a home-based care project for HIV patients. On one occasion I was called to assist a family and found the matriarch of the home sick and dying. She was not only sick but blind as well. Her family decided the best way to care for her was to put her alone in an outbuilding next to the family home. The room they left her in was empty, without furniture or a bed to trip over. They brought her food and water twice a day and left it on a plate, on the floor, for her to grope for. Isolated, abandoned, and ostracized, all because of a virus – a virus that is sexually transmitted. And there in lies the demon – a virus that is sexually transmitted. The shame, the isolation, and stigma, all come from how the virus is transmitted.
The manner in which HIV is transmitted has opened my eyes to a powerful but potentially dangerous truth – we are all connected to one another. We get stuck on the moral issue of the sex part, which makes us blind to a wonderful fact; We all crave connection. God made us this way and the virus proves it. Before you become angry with me please hear me out.
I now mentor teenagers and one of the games we play is with a ball of string. I gather them in a circle and we take that ball of string and toss it back and forth across the circle until we all have a hold of that string. The string is criss crossed, back and forth, in a web like pattern that becomes quit complicated. Then, we stand with tension on the string and I ask someone to pluck their strand of the string. When they do the whole web vibrates. I ask another to pluck their piece of the string and again, the entire web shakes. It is a simple lesson that demonstrates our connection with one another.
For a long time now we have thought of ourselves as individuals, with our own personal identities. We therefore face life with a “survivor of the fittest” mentality. Our competitive nature, our hunger to acquire, to out-do our neighbor, or even to just survive, often puts us at odd with one another. We see ourselves as having boarders that define where I end and you begin. Even our language supports this notion of separation with our pronouns of “I” and “you”, or “us” and “them”. This identity goes deep into our soul and we feel that urge to control others, to conquer, to stand tall, and become “someone” over and against “another”. All of this betrays the true nature of the world God has created.
One of the laws God used in forming the universe; Everything lives in relationship with another.
We are learning everyday that in truth, all of life is intricately woven together in stings of connection. This is no longer an esoteric fabrication but is increasingly proven science. It was once thought that the atom was the smallest individual building block of life. The atom stood alone as a solid particle like a billiard ball. We now know that the atom is just a shell that contains another world of vast space and vibrating particles, that contain a vast world of quarks that relate to one another and mysteriously form life. These individual particles only become unique when they bond with other particles. Quarks bond to form neutrons and protons, which form the nucleus of an atom, which then bonds with other atoms to form molecules. There is even a theory that says these vibrating particles are connected in strings that form a fabric that make up space and time. Today we know that matter cannot exist without these connections and interactions. There is nothing that is truly independent of another.
We therefore, as human beings, find this great need for connection with one another. I believe it is one of the laws God used in forming the universe; Everything lives in relationship with another. We deeply desire to be known, to be understood, to be shown empathy, and to be accepted for who we are. In this craving for connection we often allow that hunger to take us into acts of sexual intimacy. If you take away the hot button issue of “sex”, out of the equation, HIV simply reveals that we all crave intimacy. Henri Nouewen put it like this,
“The HIV/AIDS epidemic is probably one of the most telling symptoms of our contemporary brokenness. There, love and death cling to each other in a violent embrace. Young people, desperate to find intimacy and communion, risk their very lives for it.”
Craving connection and intimacy is not a moral issue, it’s a human need. HIV simply is the litmus test that reveals the chain of connection that is there. I’ve often heard it said, “If people would just stay faithful to one partner, there wouldn’t be this problem.” Tell that to a women who has been faithful to her husband but still ends up in the grave. Tell that to the young girl who got gang rapped on her way to school. Tell that to the child born with the virus. There are many ways the virus spreads through many social situations. My only point is not related in anyway to a moral issue but is related to the fact that we are all connected. With HIV, the connection unfortunately has a very negative consequence.
We are connected as revealed through a tiny virus. We can now see it in a new virus called Ebola. Ebola and HIV are not moral issues. They are just a virus that need a human host to multiply in. Once they enter the human body and multiply, we pass them on in a web of connection with others. Our attempts at trying to stop the spread of the virus is revealing of just how connected we are. I’ve been amazed at hearing news reports that start, “We are tracking 20 people believed to have been in contact with said host”, and end with, “We are now tracking more than 100 people.” What about those 80 or so people who weren’t originally being tracked? How many people were they in contact with? Oh no! This is becoming very complicated, isn’t it. This is the web of connection we live in everyday. The virus only reveals what we believed was not a reality. The virus reveals we are not isolated individuals at all.
So what is my point, you might be asking? If a hundred or so years ago a tiny virus entered a human host, what would you expect as a result? Did you know that to date, HIV has killed more than 25 million people globally, and another 34 million people are currently living with the virus. In total that’s nearly 60 million people. Those are just the individuals – what of their partners, their children, their extended families? The number of people affected is unimaginable. There is no way to really understand the numbers. A stone drops, a ripple forms, a wave moves out from the epicenter. The point of my writing is not about the massive numbers because my point is that we are ALL connected and therefore we are ALL affected. If one tiny virus enters a human host it will infect some, but all will be affected in some way.
Now to the good news. What if we could take the negative example of the spread of a deadly virus, but then woke up to the reality that our “loving” actions could potentially impact one another in a very similar but positive way. HIV and Ebola happen to have a horrible impact on human life but imagine what love could do – spreading, engaging, impacting, rippling out in all directions, in a wave of compassion, forgiveness, and empathy. What if we began to infect each other with acts of love? What if we saw ourselves as hosts of “love” that have the potential to “go viral”? We often feel overcome in our world and don’t know what we can do really to make any positive impact. We feel like giving into a sense of apathy that paralyzes us from doing anything. I like to look at the historical spread of HIV and realize that empirically, small acts can amount to huge outcomes.
It is the hope that I cling to that my small acts of compassion, when added to other small acts compassion, in connection with millions of us around the world, can add up to a moment of global transformation. I believe in the silent majority. We are the people around the world who want peace, who desire change, but who are calm, quiet, who go about life engaged in life with work and family. You feel you can do nothing. But your wrong! Wake up to the reality that you have the power of a virus living inside you. The virus of love. Spread it, act on it, infect others with it, let it spring up from within you and spill out. Contaminate your world with this virus. Before you know it, together, when we combine our acts of compassion and love, we will all wake up to a new reality. A new Kingdom will come to Earth, as it is in Heaven.
As a child, I sang a song in Sunday School that went something like this, “It only takes a spark to get a fire going.” The other day I accidentally started a grass fire in front of my house. In no time the wind carried that fire across my little plot toward my neighbor. I quickly ran in front of the fire to try and cut a fire break to save my neighbors shack from burning down. Fortunately, I was successful, minus a few cuts, bruises and a slightly melted pair of shoes. We can no longer live in a world where we act as though we are independent souls, whose actions only impact our own environment. My actions connect to everyone. A virus is deadly but love is life giving. It only takes a spark.
There is an imbalance in our world today and that imbalance makes it possible for the “haves” to falsely think they can survive through isolation.
We now live in fear of a new virus, Ebola. We want to isolate the source (in this case West Africa) in fear for our own lives. We want to create a “fire break” through separation. When we act in this way we fail to see that everything is connected. We fail to see that if we don’t assist in their time of need it will indeed come to us. We cannot isolate ourselves, there is a connection we have that is built into the world we live in. It was put there by our creator.
There is an imbalance in our world today and that imbalance makes it possible for the “haves” to falsely think they can survive through isolation. The “haves” want to cut a fire break around themselves to keep out the “have not’s”. That is never going to work. I live in a country (South Africa) where the stability of a delicate social balance is about to collapse, because the “have’s” thought they could live in isolation from the “have not’s”. The imbalance I see demonstrated in South Africa in microcosm exists in macro on a global scale. We are connected, and we will reap what we sow, and if we think we can isolate ourselves, we are wrong. That is not the way God created us, it’s not the way life works, and it’s not the way the universe works. Jesus put it like this,
“A branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. Apart from me you can do nothing. This is my command: Love each other.” John 15
“I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one – as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And May they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.” John 17