By Dale Atkins, Ph.D.
When I think about AIDS 40 years ago, I’m sad, of course. Like so many of us, I lost good friends far too soon.
As a psychologist, I’m also sad when I recall how tough it was for people to be kind during those early days of AIDS. And now that we’re in the midst of another deadly pandemic, COVID, I find some bad memories from that time resurfacing.
It is a problem endemic to communicable diseases: when we’re scared for our own health, when we’re worried we can be infected, how do we know if, when, and how we can reach out to the sick but remain safe? How can we be kind when we’re scared?
Of course, as we well know, there was more to AIDS paranoia than concern for one’s own health. There was hatred, judgement, and ostracism cast upon those infected, due to perception of the gay lifestyle as “other.” We need not remind ourselves of the horrible stigma people with AIDS endured.
A big problem with AIDS in the early days—a big problem in the early days of any global pandemic—is that authorities simply don’t know enough at first, and any information they present to us appears scant, and often contradictory. When doctors talked about AIDS 40 years ago they said one thing about “how you could catch it” on Tuesday, but on Wednesday they said something different. Could you get AIDS from shaking hands? Could you get AIDS if you hugged your gay college friend? Should you cross the street to move away from a guy who looks sick? Answers to such questions could change in a heartbeat.
Ironically, if we edit out the word “gay,” my patients dealing with COVID this past year have asked the very same questions.
With AIDS we learned, “No, you won’t get sick if you breathe the same air as someone infected, or if you shake his hand, or hug him. With COVID, as we know, the answers were not the same.
As with AIDS, much of the fear of COVID this past year has been fueled by mixed and confused early messaging, that very smart people in science have been scrambling to get right. Fortunately, they’re beginning to do just that, enabling us to shake off our fear and connect and care for others.
The care we give and kindness we can display are as vital for the well-being of those of us who aren’t sick as they are for the survival of those who are infected.
Among the benefits of being a psychologist is having the privilege of hearing my patients’ moving stories, shared by some who are also long-time survivors of AIDS.
“Don,” a Manhattan advertising executive, was diagnosed as HIV-positive in the early ‘80s. It wasn’t long, before he was abandoned by his family, fired from his job, and homeless—ejected from his apartment by his lover.
Don was surprised when a cousin he barely knew stepped up and offered him shelter in his house in a nearby suburb. Don lived there for several years, eventually regaining not just his health, but also his dignity. He says, “I know it was the early medical intervention I received, and scientific breakthroughs since, that have, essentially, kept me alive. But it was the kindness of my cousin when I most needed it that really saved my life. He gave me the will to live. Without that, I’m not sure I’d have made it.”
It may not be surprising that in the early days of COVID, Don was one those serving hot meals to people on the front lines. For years, he’s also been tutoring kids at a local Y. Before his cousin “saved” him, Don says, “I wasn’t charitable in the least.”
When we’re shown kindness, we often feel compelled to show it to others. Put another way, we “pay it forward.”
One thing to be aware of, however, is that it can be a challenge to find kindness within ourselves toward everyone, including those who are hostile or apathetic regarding taking the precautionary steps to protect themselves and others that we’ve now learned work: mask-wearing, judicious distancing…following the science. (It is, perhaps, more patience than kindness that we should apply to these people. Here’s hoping they come around.)
As it did for Don, kindness can, indeed, change lives. For a book I recently wrote with my niece (a social worker), The Kindness Advantage: Cultivating Compassionate and Connected Children, I had the privilege of interviewing and learning about kids all across the country who are doing well.
Sarah, a seven-year-old girl, visited a homeless shelter to deliver sleeping bags. While there, she realized what people really needed were warm socks; so, at school she collected thirty-nine pairs and donated them to the shelter. Over the next ten years Sarah found herself donating an additional 2,400 pairs of socks to this shelter, for which she also raised $85,000 in donations.
Another child, Max, from the age of two, along with his parents, was visiting soup kitchens serving people of all ages, including children. By the time Max was seven he began to want to volunteer on his own and to encourage kids in his community to volunteer alongside him. Max felt he could make kids at a shelter feel as special as he and his friends did by volunteering to serve them. It turns out—he was right!
Let us not forget the pain and ostracism of the early days of AIDS, but let’s forget the hesitancy to connect during the early days of COVID. What have we learned? Knowledge is power; power is kindness. Sick or well, we’re all in this together. Why not be kind?
Dale Atkins is a licensed psychologist with more than forty years of experience as a relationship expert focusing on families, wellness, managing stress, and living a balanced, meaningful life. Author of seven books and many chapters, articles, and journals for popular and professional audiences, Dale is a featured speaker who lectures and leads seminars worldwide and has appeared regularly on NBC’s TODAY and CNN. She has a private practice in New York City.