To coincide with International Youth Day (12 August), I recall a young friend who I never met – but whose story changed my life, and who might teach us of the potential within us all.
“Time doesn’t take away from friendship, nor does separation.”
― Tennessee Williams, Memoirs
The date 8 August 1988 might be one of vague mathematical curiosity (8-8-88) and yet it is etched into my mind as the day of a news report in which a young Sydney man lost his life; his story appearing in The Sun, a newspaper that is now also long gone.
He was reportedly infected with HIV in the days before modern multi-drug therapies made HIV a long-term medical condition instead of an almost-certain death sentence.
His last request was to return home from hospital, and his friends eagerly organised a party for his return.
This was an era when HIV was greatly feared and stigmatised, in no small part due to its popular conflation with newly-decriminalised male homosexuality and imagined contagion through normal social contact. Accordingly, his ambulance attendants wore ‘space suits’ as they delivered him home on a stretcher. His friends fled when they saw this and realised that he had AIDS.
Doctor Julian Gold told the newspaper that the young man, ‘died literally of a broken heart 48 hours later in my hospital’.
I was myself a young man when I read this story, and yet 33 years later, I remember being deeply touched by this tale of abandonment by mates and friends. We all recall the flush of youth and our eagerness to find special friends and share time and companionship with those who share our youthful enthusiasm for living and loving and learning together. This is part of the natural process of maturation, moving beyond close family, in search of our own more individualised, extended family. In his desire to find significance and belonging among his own friends – and in their failure to meet his expectations – this young man’s story touches something primal in us all.
(Wherever they are today, I hope that his friends have learnt from their past mistake – we are all only human, after all – and have gone on to redress their error of having been less than their best when the going got tough).
We might also learn from the yearning for companionship within his story – our common human condition means that we share a bond with others, regardless of their age, gender, culture, sexuality, or any other marker that has traditionally been used to separate and divide us. We share the ability to hope and dream; to yearn for significance and betterment; for living and laughing and crying. Like all sentient beings, we share the potential for suffering or flourishing, for intimacy or loneliness.
Whether they may be runaway or refugee, indigenous or ill, disempowered or discrimated against – our sentience surely compels us to empathise with others in need, and go out of our way to support them whenever we can. Indeed, I suspect that the fullest test of our humanity, ethics and compassion is whether or not we help those with whom we might ordinarily feel that we share the least in common, except for our common humanity.
I am reminded of a Biblical injunction to sacrifically offer help to others: “Greater love hath no man than he who gives his life for his friends…” and I see this saying immortalised on war memorials, building plaques, tomb stones, and used ubiquitously across common literature. However, I see deficiencies in this quote; after all, even serial killers and dictators care about their friends; and its wording suggests an elitism by implying that only friends are worth protecting rather than all humanity. I would respectfully amend and supercede this Biblical quote, emphasising its secular humanist ideal and removing it from any religious context, by expanding it to include everyone instead of just an insulated bubble of our nearest and dearest: Greater love hath no person than they who give their life to help another; turning strangers and enemies and their whole human family into friends.
Thirty-three years ago, that anonymous young man’s story convinced me that awareness of the suffering of others is our choice. His story inspired me towards activism. How many others are like him today, around the world, suffering in silence during modern-day plagues: HIV, COVID, disease, poverty, starvation, injustice, war, violence, discrimination, or the indifference of others? And what are we doing about it?
However we answer those questions reveals more about our own humanity than it does about those whose suffering we are challenged to confront.
Dan McDonnell, 1988. ‘A tragic test of friendship’, in The Sun, Melbourne, 8 August.
(*My study of HIV/AIDS has been connected to a PhD study. This work was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.)
© 2021 Geoff Allshorn