Thursday, August 20, 2015

Love is Good Medicine

Dr Durrell's Spiritual Prescriptions (a bi-monthly column in the Florida Agenda)
"Love is Good Medicine"
A young friend of mine recently tested positive for HIV. I was heartbroken. Of course I’m relieved that he got tested, that he knows his status, and that he is seeking treatment. And, I am confident that he will respond well to the treatment and will live a long, productive life. But I also know that care-free, medication-free days are a thing of the past for him. I know the life-saving medications might have inconvenient side-effects. I know that he will worry about who to tell and when to tell and how to tell about his HIV status, because even in 2015 people with HIV are still often stigmatized. My friend is single, and I know that revealing his status to prospective sexual partners might cause him some embarrassment, regret, and anxiety. And, I imagine that some people will back away from entering into intimacy with this beautiful, delightful young man because of his status.
In an age of PrEP and of effective treatments that can help most people manage their HIV, AIDS is not the all-consuming terror that it was in my young adult days. Consequently, we’ve let our guard down a bit, and some in our community have become a bit judgmental of those who seroconvert in this day and age. But the truth is that HIV has not yet been cured (I, for one, continue to hope and pray to see the day when a cure is found and made accessible to all people), and until HIV is cured, some will continue to get it. While I hope that people will be very careful in their romantic lives, I also hope we will remember that HIV isn’t something that anyone deserves. It isn’t bad karma or divine punishment. It is a virus and viruses tend to spread.
I don’t want anyone to get HIV ever again, but some will. And for those of us who are HIV positive, I don’t want any of us to ever give up hope for healthy, vibrant lives and I don’t want any of us to ever be ashamed of our health status or afraid that we are unlovable because of it. And because people still must live with HIV, I hope all of us will choose to be supportive, compassionate, and kind. Fear and condemnation didn’t do any good in the 80s and 90s when AIDS was ravishing our community, and fear and condemnation still won’t serve us well today.
The old slogan, “Hate HIV, not People with HIV” still rings true for me. HIV will one day be completely defeated, but until that glorious and miraculous day, let us remember to love ourselves and one another. Love is still good medicine, and it is still very much needed.

Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins is the Senior Minister of Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Confessions of a Struggling Optimist

Optimism is a choice for me. It isn't "natural"...that is, I didn't learn it in my home or school or even in the church of my youth. Because I was already a young adult when I embraced New Thought philosophy (the idea that we can take control of our habitual thinking and thereby improve the conditions of our lives), I had long established/programmed thought habits that fed into anxiety, shame, regret, and dread. 

As a child and young adult, I worried about almost everything. I saw the world as a challenging place where every good thing and every success could only come by means of struggle. Added to the habitually negative way of viewing the world that I was taught was a family history of depression. I not only "learned" anxiety, in some ways, I biologically inherited it!

Additionally, I was a gay child in a super conservative, fundamentalist Christian region of the country, where fear (fear of God, fear of Hell, fear of punishment, fear of not being good enough, fear of gays!) was practically in the water seemed ubiquitous, natural, normal, and inescapable. So feelings of anxiety, loneliness, and low self-esteem all seemed to come naturally to me; those feelings certainly dominated my mind for the first 20 years of life (and have paid unwanted visits from time to time ever since).

But I did discover the idea that there is a universal power that flows through and expresses as all life, that this power is the energy of life, the "stuff" from which we are made, and by changing our thoughts and attitudes and expectations we can tap into that power and direct it more usefully for our benefit (rather than unintentionally using it to reinforce our fears). If such a power exists and can be used for our benefit, then hope is reasonable, and I decided to become a person of hope. 

So for almost 30 years I have been an avowed optimist. But that doesn't mean that the first 20 years of programming went away. Some days, I still struggle. My struggles are now aided by the assurance that things will get better, that I deserve for them to get better, and that I have the ability to weather the current storm (real or imagined) and see brighter days again. The struggle doesn't last as long, or occur as frequently, but it does still happen.

I still have work to do. To this day, when I experience inward turmoil, or outer challenges, a negative voice rises within me accusing me of being a fraud: "How can I be an optimist if I'm dreading the doctor visit, or sad that someone didn't appreciate me, or worried about the success of a project?" Those old negative tapes still exist. They are buried, the volume is turned down, but they are still in storage in my subconscious. 

Usually, when I feel badly about feeling badly, I am able to remind myself that optimism isn't a choice I made 30 years ago; it's a decision that I FIRST made 30 years, and it's a choice I must continue to make daily. When I remind myself of this, I start to forgive myself for being overly critical of myself, and I begin again affirming my value, daring to know that things can, ought to, and must get better, and I start remembering the many things for which I can be grateful. I start to see the good that outweighs the bad, the good that the bad can't take away, the good that is waiting for me beyond the bad...sometimes, I even notice that the bad isn't as bad as I first imagined. 

I share this because optimism saved my life. It got me through bouts of depression, including the worst bout of my life about 5 years ago. It also helped me cope with spinal defects, get my weight under control, and even live a healthy life, in spite of a chronic diagnosis, for a couple of decades now. Optimism has helped me survive professional challenges, has made it possible for me to see 22 countries so far, earn multiple degrees, and find and share my life with the true love of my life. 

I believe in optimism, I depend on optimism, and I am grateful for optimism. And I know as well as anyone that optimism is a daily choice, there can be set backs, and it may not come naturally to some of us. But just because we have some troubling days or some old thought habits pay us an unwanted visit, that doesn't make us frauds or failures...that just reminds us (to borrow from A Course in Miracles) to "choose once again." When we hit a rough patch, that's when we need optimism the most, and we can choose the power of optimism again.

There remains a universal power, we are part of it and it is part of us, and we can use it to improve our lives. We can remind ourselves of this fact as often as we need to, and as we do, things start to get better again. So, I remain an optimist. Some days it takes more effort than others, but I still believe that it's worth the effort. And so it is.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

A message to a well known evangelical leader

On Facebook today, the Reverend Billy Graham's son (a well known opponent of marriage equality and gay rights) posted a lovely tribute to his parents. His father (Billy Graham) is still alive; his mother died a few years ago. It was actually touching to see him celebrate his parents' lifelong love and devotion. I responded on his wall as follows:
"A lovely tribute to a loving couple; I hope you will one day speak as fondly of all loving couples who are enriched by their bond and shared commitment. Same-gendering loving couples also love deeply and truly and they painfully miss their departed spouses. When we recognize that all mutually shared love is sacred, love will begin to heal our fractured world. God bless your father and his precious memories and God bless all loving, committed relationships." (dw)

Sunday, August 09, 2015

I'm Not a Republican, but Let's Be Fair

The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed under Bush I, Nixon appointed liberal SCOTUS justices, Betty Ford supported the Equal Rights Amendment, Eisenhower (a veteran of and leader in war) was not keen to send Americans into avoidable wars and he didn't try to slash safety net social programs, no GOP president has ever used nuclear weapons in war (that dishonor is Truman's alone), and Barry Goldwater did not want to cave into to religious extremists in his party, and on top of all that, my paternal grandmother was a lifelong Republican (and a loving person). Even Reagan (who responded far too slowly to the AIDS crisis and far too little to South African Apartheid) dealt with his critics and opponents with charm and respect.

I'm a Democratic Socialist (and believe DemSoc values are the most likely to provide justice and fairness for the most people), but I bristle when I hear people calling Republicans "evil" may be true that an angry, fearful, resentful bunch have exerted undue influence in that party for 20 or more years, and it may be true that some GOP candidates sound a bit meaner than they would wish to but feel they  must to get the base's support, but the Tea Party Republicans of today were the Dixiecrats of yesteryear. The problem isn't which party the Tea Party/Dixiecrat types try to hijack, but the attitudes themselves; there have always been people looking for a place to make their myopic desires for an ultra-conservative, white privileging, woman controlling, heteronormative, all too often violent Christian theocracy part of a political platform, but in the last century, both parties at different times have housed those people.

It's too easy to demonize a party (or a religion), and it isn't helpful. We ought to support the candidates and causes we believe in, and we can challenge attitudes, behaviors, policies, platforms and even individuals that we find to be unhelpful or problematic, but let's not paint all members of a group with a broad brush. Some of us know how unfair that can be.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

We Still Need Buffy

Dr. Durrell’s Spiritual Prescriptions

We Still Need Buffy
"Do you think I chose to be like this? Do you have any idea how lonely it is, how dangerous? I would love to be upstairs watching TV or gossiping about boys or... God, even studying! But I have to save the world. Again." Buffy (The Vampire Slayer)

Joss Whedon’s "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (Mutant Enemy Productions, 1997 – 2003) was one of the smartest television series in the history of television. It was full of action, occult thrills, philosophy, wit, humor, fantasy, and romance. It was complex and thoughtful and I watched it with religious devotion (and even though the series ended a dozen years ago, I still watch the old episodes with a sense of nostalgic delight).
I would like to think that I loved “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” because I'm smart and witty, or because I possess a combination of depth and whimsy. I might have liked it because there is something erotic about vampirism. Maybe the youthful cast members made me feel young again. But I suspect it was Buffy herself that appealed to me the most.
Buffy was special. She was born different than other people, but she didn't discover who she really was and what it meant until she was in her late teens. She came to realize that her difference was powerful and the world was actually better because she embraced her truth. Her unique gifts were needed in the world; and, her courage in accepting her role in life improved the lives of others. And yet, some were afraid of her difference. Others hated her for her difference. She often felt the need to "hide" her gifts from those who might not understand. And, because she was different, she often felt lonely, misunderstood, and unappreciated.
Buffy was a queer character, or at least she resonated with this queer viewer. She was not only different from the majority of society but her love interests were sometimes "forbidden" even though they were consensual and caring. Her friends were also "queer." Her close friends and companions included a couple of vampires (her “slayer” vocation notwithstanding), a "watcher" (a sort of wizard/scholar), lesbian witches, a werewolf, a reformed vengeance demon, and a non-corporeal energy field that was given human form and became her mystically adopted sister. Who wants to be limited to the mainstream in a universe of infinite diversity?!
Even while being different, Buffy was strong. She was also kind (as truly strong people usually are). She was an embodiment of the gift of queerness, difference, specialness. She didn't choose what she was, but she embraced it and lived it with integrity, and the world was better because she dared to be herself.
Every queer identified person could see their lives reflected in Buffy's, and the life they saw was one of power, dignity, and accomplishment.
The conservative backlash to marriage equality makes me think that we need Buffy to return to the small or big screen. We still need a s/hero to remind us that being different, being special, being queer may not always be easy, but those of us who embrace our truth can prove that our queer lives are a gift to the world.

Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins is the Senior Minister of Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale.

Published in the Florida Agenda

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Today's brush with the Religious/Political Extreme Right

A thread of multiple thousands are stirred up about the proposed Iranian diplomatic proposal. Let me come clean from the start...I do NOT know what the best way is to "handle" the Iranian government. Ideologically, the Iranian government is disturbing to my way of thinking. Something must be done and the President and Secretary of State with other world leaders have proposed a possible solution to peacefully keep Iran in check. Will it work? I don't know. Is it the best option? Experts smarter than I am hold a variety of views. So, my argument isn't that the deal is good or not good, that it will work or fail...I can't know those things at this point. My annoyance came from the people who are certain the deal is bad not simply disagreeing with the deal, but calling the president a hater of America and Israel, someone with a personal agenda to do harm in the world. Could we disagree with a plan without demonizing the architect of the plan? Could a plan be offered in good faith whether or not it proves to be a good plan? So, I chimed in with the following remarks...
"Everyone knows that the Iranian government is problematic. The difference of opinion (and having a different opinion does not make one evil or a hater of one's own country) is in how to deal with the problem. Sanctions only work if they are globally supported, and that support is waning. War is never the best solution (and often leaves things worse than before war was launched). Diplomacy (which the 'Prince of Peace' would surely find viable) is another approach to keep Iran in check. They already have frightening capabilities; the efforts are to reduce those capabilities, and business as usual will not do that. So, only time will tell if the administration's plan will be successful, but whether it is or not, it is a legitimate, good faith effort to promote peace and security in the world. It is unfair and mean-spirited to accuse the president of ill-will or nefarious motives in trying to find a peaceful solution to a threatening situation." Rev Dr Durrell Watkins