Living with HIV/AIDS & Finding Hope in Magickal Thinking

Enchanting the World
Living with HIV/AIDS & finding hope in magickal (not magical) thinking
by Mel Baker

In a recent A&U column called “Relentless ‘Gratitude’?” Hank Trout wrote about his concerns that some of the New Age aphorisms many of us throw around such as “think positive” or “express gratitude” feel at best hollow and are potentially an unhealthy form of denial [For the Long Run, November 2017].

He wrote movingly about how many of the New Age ideas spouted by people such as the recently deceased Louise Hay actually caused psychological harm to some of those fighting to stay alive in the era before the protease cocktail.

I think he has some very valid points, but I’d like to make the countering argument that at least some of those New Age ideas were and are a step in the right direction toward a healthy spiritual psychology for LGBT folks and others stigmatized by HIV.

In the 1980s, most gay men were raised in religious communities that were toxic to them. Also, heterosexuals often found those faith communities turned against them because of the stigma associated with HIV. When they faced the death of their friends, lovers and the end of their own life they had no place to turn for spiritual comfort.

In that era some embraced New Age practitioners who promised spiritual and possibly physical healing.

At its best so-called New Age philosophy attempts to go to the core of spirituality, shorn of the toxic cultural elements that have accreted around many “mainstream” religions. The philosophy doesn’t view divinity as something that we must petition or placate, but instead as something immanent, something inside us. The idea was to work on loving and most importantly “knowing” ourselves more so we could tap into this source of healing and power.

Some of these ideas promoted by Hay and others were sold not as spiritual philosophies—whose embrace would require time and dedication—but instead as commodities that one could consume at a seminar or in a book to replace the failures of the medical system.

The downside was that most people embracing these ideas were also coming from sin-based religions, so many felt that as they became sicker that they had failed, they had “sinned” by not loving themselves enough! The very ideal of a spirituality centered on one’s own truth, twisted back into the very religious model it was supposedly there to free us from.

As a young man I had been a student of metaphysics and was appalled by Hay’s simplistic approach to these complex ideas. While she was promoting elementary school metaphysics, there were those who had been embracing the greater ramification of these ideas.

Harry Hay, the founder of the Radical Faeries movement and an early gay activist in the Mattachine Society, promoted the idea that not only were our spirits holy, but so were our gay bodies. Mark Thompson wrote about gay soul and women authors and teachers were exploring a spirituality divorced from patriarchy.

For myself exploring these worlds and working with my mentor and spiritual teacher Joyce Sohler helped me understand myself and face not only my positive traits, but also my negative qualities and neurosis. That process “enchanted” my life, empowering me to fight to keep it. That hope allowed me to embrace alternative therapies and take part in four clinical trials, the last of which was a protease trial that did save my life. Even if I hadn’t been lucky enough to enter that trial I know that my “enchanted” worldview had and likely would have helped me maintain my sanity in the face of the all consuming fire that was AIDS.

Remembering to “be grateful” and to “think positive” need not be tools of denial, rather they should be psychological stances that allow us to invoke a sense of hope and wonder, even as we deal with life’s challenges.

The effort to enchant the lives of LGBT folks and people living with HIV is I think a positive thing. While it is true that some may use these ideas to deny the reality of body, blood and bone, for others the sense of connection to a greater world of faith and hope can make it easier for them to take on the next health challenge.

Let us then express gratitude that we are still dancing on the earth and hold positive thoughts for whatever pleasures and wonders remain open to us and to those we love in the here and now.

Mel Baker is a broadcast journalist working in San Francisco. He was an activist in the anti-nuclear weapons, LGBT civil rights, and AIDS care movements. He took part in four AIDS drug trials in the late eighties and nineties and was one of the Lazarus patients saved by the protease drug cocktail. He is married to artist Leslie Aguilar.