It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, as life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes with saying that injustice is commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one's life, accept these injustices as commonplace, but must fight them with all one's strength. This fight begins, however, in the heart . . . James Baldwin, from Notes Of A Native Son
Like many people, I have watched the so-called health care debate with disappointment and at times despair. I was there in Grant Park nearly a year ago, hoping that now finally we could put politics aside and end the injustice of letting millions of working people live with the cruel choice of health or financial ruin.
Despair is a strong word. It means a lack of hope, which is in itself a harbinger of illness. But it’s a real feeling that comes from what lies beneath it, anger and bitterness.
My story is just another story of how easy it is to fall into the ranks of the uninsured. An illness, a changed job, part-time life between three employers, and a pre-condition. I have taught for ten years at an elite private university, and augment it with other teaching gigs at other schools, even yoga in my neighborhood.
My illness? Well, some might say, it’s my stubborn belief in myself as a writer. But I wish that were all it was: I live with HIV and have for 13 years.
When I tell people that I have no insurance, a panicked look comes over them. They assume the worst. I did too when I left a very bad teaching job to finish writing a book on AIDS activism, and then after two years of looking couldn’t find a full time work with benefits. Cobra ran out and I was I faced with insurance for the first time along with a mounting debt from traveling, researching, and promoting my book. However, I was an effective speaker for students that year, standing before med students at Penn State or Princeton’s elite and representing in flesh and blood the realities and absurdities of America’s health care’s failings.
I remember thinking boldly and stupidly that I’d just have to cash in my meager retirement and was about to do so despite pleas from my friends. But what was one to do? A friend, who also lived with HIV, a yoga teacher, told me that his health insurance cost him something like $1400 a month. My bitterness was so intense the only thing I could do to cool down was swim for miles in Lake Michigan. If I didn’t have the money, then I’d just stop taking medications. I hated taking them anyway. But then another friend of mine, a promising journalist in New York, in anger with living a life of spending days crisscrossing Manhattan cobbling together health care from different special clinics and programs, just quit taking meds and seeing a doctor and months later he died. 30 years old. He died of a broken heart, literally, because it was bitterness that killed him.
Fortunately for me, Illinois with the aid of the Federal government provides funds for people who have no health insurance and can’t afford to pay $2000 dollars a month for medications, so I enrolled. And for the last two years have gotten my meds for free, though my days are numbered because I’m starting to make too much money to qualify. Next year, I can lie on my taxes, quit teaching yoga, try not to publish anything, or face paying twenty some thousand on medications.
With a diminished immune system, I can’t risk the stress of bitterness. I can’t lose sleep over the ways of Washington or the fear-mongering of pundits. I’ve protested and written articles, and that helps some. But I’m slowly learning that no matter how unfair things are I have to maintain my health with what I have: my family, my friends, my teaching, my writing, my yoga practice, and my retreats into nature.
White Mountains, New Hampshire and Maine
When I first became infected with HIV, I began a rigorous, devoted yoga practice and exercise program. When people asked me how yoga helped, I remember struggling with an answer, trying to find some biological basis or some philosophical truth, all I could say was that it made me feel as if I were taking action rather than feeling dependent on an abstraction called “the health care system.” Agency is no New Age theme for a weekend workshop; neurobiology has shown a profound relationship between what we believe and do with how we feel and heal.
I struggle, though, like everyone else with emotions of fear, anger and depression. We can’t escape the way we feel or the world’s injustices. But the truths of the ancients, be they from the west or east are the same: We can’t do much about the circumstances of life; we can however do something about how we respond to them.
I understand all too well how the injustices of the world can wound the heart so deeply that it refuses all hope. I know that no matter how strong my will or body is, I must also depend on others for my health. We are social creatures. This is why teaching is such a healthy activity. Being before a group of people who look to you for guidance demands an expansion of your thinking about yourself and how the world works. You must believe in patience and in the potency of small actions. You must learn to listen and feel your way by holding out your hands to others.
I’d hoped, perhaps naively, that this debate might not separate people over politics and money, but bring us together to discuss how to better take care of our bodies and the world that supports them. I hope we still can. Our country, despite its flaws, was founded on the enduring ideal of reason and justice. But they have no power unless we practice them.