Forgiveness is admirable. As therapy and as spiritual practice, it comes highly recommended, along with justice, to heal from a wrong we have suffered. But for someone who receives an HIV diagnosis, when the deadly virus came from their life partner, forgiveness is hard to fathom. It is not a noble abstraction, or a good thing to do, but a struggle with ambiguities and passions. Could you forgive the person who gave you HIV?
Just in case you think this is purely theoretical, if you are not gay and don’t inject drugs, I’ll just mention that each year, about 14,000 Americans get HIV from heterosexual contact, according to the CDC. It’s an equal opportunity virus. People can go for years without knowing that they are infected, sharing it with new partners, or the one waiting for them at home. They don’t look sick. People who have been out there having unprotected sex, avoid getting tested for HIV because they don’t want to risk hearing bad news, and they certainly don’t want to have to break it to their partner. Eventually, though, the truth comes out. Could you to continue to love the one who gave you HIV? It wasn’t on purpose.
Forgiveness can’t possibly involve forgetting. People who acquire HIV never have the option of forgetting about stigma, and medication, and the fragility of life. Exposing someone to the virus poses the most poignant of challenges to an intimate relationship. Bringing it home involves betrayal: infidelity, perhaps, or at least, failure to verify one’s HIV status, and to provide fair warning. Even more, it shows carelessness with the life of someone who trusted too much, because doing the right thing was awkward. Some partners overlook their own self-absorption; some awaken and become a better human being. Forgiveness may begin with noticing this.
People living with the HIV virus have an awareness of their mortality that changes everything, even if they are healthy, and likely to stay that way for a long time. This can be a lonely spiritual transformation. The partner who becomes infected, enters a journey of learning to live fully in each moment, and figuring out what normal means. The partner who brought the infection home may offer meaningful companionship on this journey. A request for forgiveness is more credible when this happens; the partner’s sense of violation, though, may not allow it. But forgiveness is also a process of transforming an angry, wounded soul into one free for better things. Letting go of toxic emotions has value for the person who receives HIV, in other words, even if the donor doesn’t deserve it. But is it possible to truly love that person still, and not out of fear that, HIV and all, nobody else will ever come along? A rare few of my clients say yes. I call that kind of transformation miraculous.
December 1 is World AIDS Day. Be safe.