“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.
Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner vonice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
Extract from Steve Jobs’ Commencement address, Stanford University, June 14 2005
In June 1996 I was admitted to Prince Henry Hospital. I weighed in at 48kg, had 10 CD4’s, chronic anaemia, chronic candida and chronic CMV retinitus. Prognosis was not good, and I truly never expected to walk out of the hospital. In fact, it was thought that I would not last longer than about 2 weeks, especially with the CMV diagnosis, which was a very serious problem, and as I knew only too well, a very unpleasant way to die.
I think what surprised me the most was how calm I was about the whole situation. There was no panic, no despair. Just an acceptance that this was the way it was, and there was little I could do to change it. There was a certain inevitability about it, a knowledge that I had already beaten the odds to get this far with no serious illnesses, and it was just “my turn”. In some respects I had begun thinking that things were starting to get very lonely anyway, with so many I knew already dead, and still more to die before things started to get better. It was a time of reflection, introspection and recollection that was in its own way very calming, and I think I found a certain strength within myself that I wasn’t expecting to find, and a set of beliefs that have stayed with me since.
I underestimated modern medicine. This was a time of miracles! Intensive and aggressive treatment for the problems I had – gancyclovir injections into the eyes to halt the CMV, blood transfusions for the anemia and very aggressive dosing with the then new protease inhibitor class of drugs as part of my new combination. Miracles did indeed happen! Two weeks later, though still very thin and very weak, I walked (sort of) out of Prince Henry, and very much into a new life. And the new life was not what myself, nor anyone else, may have expected it to be.
I guess one would expect that after a close brush with death that one would undergo a huge epiphany, a movement towards God, many humble and pliant prayers (and much rattling of rosary beads) to the Power’s-That-Be to thank them for this great deliverance, and to invoke them through bible-bashing, church-going and good deeds to show Them that I was moving myself into a world of piety and religious zeal unequaled since Martin Luther or the Spanish Inquisition. Nah! None of that happened. There was no great enlightenment, no being filled with the Spirit and babbling in tongues. No overwhelming desire to drag myself into the confessional and plead for forgiveness for my sins (whatever they might be) and do 200 Hail Mary’s as penance, nor a need to robe myself in sack-cloth and ashes and disappear into a Cistercian Monastery for the remainder of my life. Was I even disappointed that this didn’t happen? Not really! I was too busy getting my health (and my weight – thanks to decadurabalin) back together and trying to work out what one was supposed to do, when one didn’t die as expected, to worry too much about the spiritual mine-field that I may have been in, but wasn’t. Get my drift!
In fact, with the exception of one (who surprised me, I must say), no one I knew gravitated towards religion as they lay in hospital, or closer to the moment in a hospice. No one! Nought! Zero! Well, except for the one! So did this (or should it) have made me wonder about my own mortality, or about the spiritual desert that I should supposedly have been in? Nah! That didn’t happen either. So exactly what is it that I felt about the great mystery that we call life, what is above and below us – and does it really matter at all? If you are broad-minded, read on. If not, stop here.
Now, before I go into details about my own religious upbringing, it may interest you to know that I come from a background of Yorkshire Wesleyan Baptists. Yes, that came as a shock to me too. In fact one of my first cousins, twice removed up, was the Reverend Alfred Pickles. Alfie (this far down the line I feel I can be familiar) appeared in the 1861 UK census as a watchmaker, then lo and behold 10 years later in the 1871 census he is suddenly a Baptist minister. He preached his way around Rochdale in Lancashire for a while until being made Pastor of North End Baptist Chapel in Towcester, Nothamptonshire frpm 1880 to 1891. It appears that a dwindling congregation forced his resignation, and he and his wife and brood ended up at Dallington in Northhamptonshire as a hatter and hosier. My, how the mighty fall.
I was raised in a household of mixed religion, with my father being Catholic (non-practising), and my mother a Methodist (or Presbyterian or something or other, also non-practising) and religion was something that was never discussed in any shape or form at home. The great wonder to me is why they felt the need to baptise me in the Congregational Church (talk about confusing the issue) at Sylvania. Perhaps, being the newbies in an already close knit commnity, they felt the need to fit in. The fact that we were surrounded on all sides by Congregationals may have had something to do with it (and it is, after all WASP territory), as our neighbours over the road ended up being my Godparents. They were Godly people, but thankfully not preachy so I guess religion was sort of left up to me to work out for myself. I did attend Sunday School, but saw it more as a way to collect scripture cards (“I’ve got more than you”) than to live by the precepts printed on them, and it was a good way to get to blow out birthday candles on the plaster cake used for such occasions even when it wasn’t your birthday (I plead guilty to relieving my boredom one Sunday by saying it was my birthday when it wasn’t – then packing shit that my parents may have found out – or even worse, that one of the other kids may have told his parents it was my “wasn’t” birthday and they would embarrass me by wishing me happy birthday. It caused quite a quandry! I never did it again). I was then sent to a Catholic boarding college at Campbelltown. Now for a while this did induce in me great piety and religious zeal (not to mention the first time I was groped by another guy, even if it was in the swimming pool), as like many other new converts to Catholicism I got caught up in all the rigmorole, ritual and razzamattaz that this religion inspires. What sort of budding gay boy can’t get caught up in all the shiney vestments, the candlelabra, the incense, the sprinkling of holy water, and devotion to Mary and all the saints (well, until they decided that some of them were fairy tales and not pulling their weight, and decided to chuck them out…go figure!). I certainly was inspired, and within 18 months of starting school there I converted, and was baptised in the school chapel by a priest (who later turned out to be a child molester – truly!), and my math teacher (who absolutely reeked of cigarette smoke) and the School Captain (a bit of a spunk) as my Sponsors. It was truly a moment to treasure. I didn’t think much of telling the priest in the confessional that I spanked the monkey like crazy (though truth be told he probably got off on it), but that was the only real drawback. Six months later I was Confirmed by the then Bishop of Wollongong, and started off on a quite short but vigorous religious life as a Catholic. I started hanging
around with the Carmelite Fathers who visited the college for weekly Masses and Confession and decided that I may have had a vocation. Truth be told, I think I just got caught up in the romantic appeal of monastic life (yes, you read that right – just ask any Catholic!), the dedication of my life within a totally male-dominated community devoted to God (I did the male community thing later, but God had nothing to do with it), the thought that I was entering an institution that had been around for centuries, and hey…I got to wear a frock, as uninspired as it may have been. I did enter the religious life for a while about seven years later (yes, into an enclosed community), and I guess this may have been the start of my doubts and probably accelerated my move to Athieism. A small start-up community with a Prior who was an egotist and loved the power trip, doling out penances that were almost medieval, and not one iota of support for new or struggling novices was the order of the day. I gave up out of sheer frustration and moved on. Needless to say, the community didn’t last long.
By this stage I had studied religion and found it wanting. I looked at all the hatred and hypocrisy; all the wars caused by; all the cultures destroyed by; the Catholic church burning and killing people who dared to believe otherwise; all the fundamentalist religions who seem to despise everybody and everything yet insist in ramming down your throat how Godly & Righteous they are; King Henry deciding he was God, and beheading or burning anyone who defied him; all the history and architecture and books and art destryed by same religions; all the lives twisted and destroyed by molestation and lies (and which the Church still tries to deny); all the doomsday and suicide cults who,unbelievably, manage to suck people in until it is too late to get out; attitudes to celibacy, contraception and sex that are so outdated that we may as well be living in the 13th century; the way women are treated in many religions; and the Catholic church being totally unable to reconcile itself to the modern era, and remaining in the past by electing conservative & ancient Popes…and decided it was all bullshit. The whole fucking lot of it! I have recently been reading a series of Historical Fiction novels by C.J.Sansom about a lawyer called Matthew Shardlake, set in the reign of Henry VIII. Everybody, irrespective of social rank or standing or occupation is terrified to express any religious view other than what the King tells them to believe. It delves into the sheer egotism of the time, the Catholic Church forcing itself onto everyone as the ONLY faith that one could have, Henry VIII as the ultimate egotist and dictator saying no, he should be the religion that everyone follows, and the reformists who were at heart no better than either, as they also thought they were right and everybody else was wrong. To be contrary was to be dead. It is a rather terrifying insight into the medieval mind, made more so by the fact that we know this actually happened.
Next, I “came out” at the grand age of 25. I managed to have a total of two years as an active gay man before contracting HIV. Didn’t that make me wish I’d defied everyone and come out a lot earlier! So, did I blame God for this plague on my life? Nah! Unfortunately I had to admit to contracting it from being newly out, and a trash bag. I slutted my way around the scene quicker and more thoroughly than the flu virus spreads through an office. I could sniff out a Yank at 5 metres, and would stalk him until he relented and bedded me…little knowing! It was prolific sex…and wonderful. I have no regrets about that. Though I didn’t know it at the time, over the next 10 years I was to see enough death, desolation and despair to last me the rest of my life. I saw incredible bravery in the face of adversity; I experienced people taking their own lives to avoid the misery of AIDS; the hope on the faces of guys being guinea pigs in an attempt to try to help both themselves and others (and I am indeed in that group); a community coming together and showing that there is power in numbers; and we did gain a voice that was loud and radical and took no compromise in the face of everything that was going on. Oh yeah, and we had the Rev.Fred Nile and his ilk, screaming out in true Christian sympathy, love and compassion that this was a plague from God on the gay lifestyle, that we deserved it (in a Christian way), and that everyone with HIV should be quarantined and locked away from all the “good” members of society (but in a Christian way, of course). Any single, solitary vestige of religion I had left in me (and there would have been very little left) went out the window at this stage. I have never looked back and regretted that.
So, at this point we come back to Prince Henry Hospital, and me being thrust back into the real world, with no tools to get me back on my feet, spiritually, emotionally or psychologically. I guess I could have seen religion as an easy way to acknowledge my survival from what should have been death; as a way of celebrating living and being given a second chance. Nah! Not for this boy. I have never regained any respect or love for religion, and I don’t imagine that I ever will. Some people gravitate towards it as they get older and the prospect of death looms. They seem to join the ratbag fringes for some reason – they start ‘speaking in tongues (also known as glossolalia), or join Opus Dei or call themselves Charismatic, Pentecostal’s or Born-Again’s (to be avoided at all costs! I dislike people who preach without listening). Fear of death obviously causes a lot of people to lose the plot.
So, what then do I believe? Well, I don’t delude myself to start with – Athieism is a belief. Okay, it’s a belief in not believing which in itself is a bit contrary, but perhaps that is getting closer to where I am anyway. I don’t really want to die, but I’m not afraid of it. Perhaps I should consider being truly radical and joining the Baha’i, or Zoroastrian religions. Now, that could be interesting. I guess if I was to go back to any religion – and the arguments would have to be truly convincing – it would be a religion where I was just left to decide my depth of faith for myself. No theology, no liturgy, no preaching, no dictating, no churches, no ministers. Give me the bare-bones of belief (whatever that may mean) and let me devise it for myself. I don’t believe there is any afterlife. No heaven, no hell. It makes no sense to me why we should live this life for something that comes after – one way is good, one way is bad. It’s just stupid and illogical. If heaven and hell do exist, why is it that the Christian religions (and many of them are new arrivals to the religious scene) are the only ones who believe in this concept? Yes, other eligions do believe in an afterlife (and many don’t) but nowhere is it so clearly delineated by pearly gates and streets of gold in one direction, and nothing but flames and misery in the other – like living here and now can’t be misery enough! Does this mean that everybody else is wrong, or irrelevant? If heaven and hell do exist, are the millions who don’t believe in it excluded from this exclusive club? How ridiculous that people actually believe they are so above everyone else that only they are right and deserve this deliverance! And how typical of the superiority of Christian religions that they are ‘holier than thou’ and everyone else be buggered! I belive in the theory of “the right place at the right time” for our evolutionary process, that we are here simply ‘because’. Everything has its time and wears out, as we do, and just passes away and becomes part of the Earth’s recycling process. I don’t see why there should be anything greater or higher, and I don’t know why this imaginery being we call God should be any better than me, nor why I should worship something that can’t even be proved. It is all so ethereal and…silly.
I must admit to finding Buddhism very tantalising. The Dalai Lama is the most amazing man, and far surpasses any leader of any faith that I have ever encountered. His compassion, his piety and his dedication to Buddhism despite being in exhile from his own homeland is truly inspiring. Let’s hope he never gets sucked into doing “Masterchef” again! Having said that, the thought of having to turn vegetarian is definitely a put-off for me, though recently I have found myself putting spiders and other creepy-crawlies that appear in the house back outside…so maybe I’m considering who it might be. I watched Judith Lucy’s recent program on the ABC about her spiritual search (she didn’t find anything that changed her perspective) and at one stage she interviewed a Buddhist nun. This woman had the best attitude to Buddhism, claiming that you didn’t need to follow it in it’s purist form, but you could draw from it the parts that suited you and create your own form of Buddhism around that base. Now, that has almost converted me. If only Christianity had learned such wisdom, understanding and humility. Perhaps it would not have lost me in the first place.
As an ageing HIV+ man, I don’t feel any real need to negotiate with a God. I don’t need to justify my existence, nor do I need to create an afterlife so that I have something comfortable to believe in as death approaches. I don’t know how or when I will die, though I do believe that the time is not yet, and that there are still a few kilometres on the speedo. I used to be concerned that I was not going to leave a legacy behind when I died – something that said to future generations “I’ve been here and I’ve done something”. I do hope that I have done no one true harm, and that somewhere along the line I may have had a positive influence on somebody. Just one would do! It’s not important, but it would be nice. As for a legacy? I hope my writing is my legacy. I hope that at some stage someone will read what I have written, or quote it, or even contemplate it and think to themselves “what an interesting man”. That would be nice indeed!