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The Gifts from Oz: Lessons for HIV

The recent annual telecast by cable network TBS of the classic 1939 MGM film, “The Wizard of Oz” marks an annual ritual for me that dates back to when I was four. Watching this wonderful work of Hollywood magic each year gives me a chance to revisit its dazzling color, charm, and beauty like visiting an old friend. It also gives me a chance to contemplate its universal, timeless themes that coincide with the characters’ deepest desires: the Scarecrow who wants a brain, the Tin Man who wants a heart, the Cowardly Lion who wants courage, and the heroine, Dorothy, who wants to return to the home she loves. A lesser-recognized theme is the Wicked Witch, who wants the magic ruby slippers that will give her limitless political power over the country of Oz to control and enslave others to satisfy her greed and thirst for power.

As fantastic and outrageous as this 104-year-old story is (by L. Frank Baum, an author who had many professional failures before writing his masterpiece and the 13 sequels that followed it), its basic lessons hold true today when we consider what it takes to cope with, and even thrive with, living with HIV. Certainly, we all need brains. We need the intelligence of doctors, scientists, and other providers to skillfully sift through mountains of scientific information and apply it to clinical care of patients in fighting the virus on a very medical, pharmaceutical, and microscopic level. And, to the extent we can, we need to learn part of their knowledge to help us make wise decisions for ourselves. We must all master some of the knowledge required to understand diagnostic tests, medication regimens, opportunistic infections, side-effects, systemic complications, and viral resistance patterns. We also need the intellect to understand how the brain and mind cope with stress (sometimes with the help of an HIV-savvy mental health professional) and how changing the way we think can change the way we feel and relate to others.

Like the Wizard said, “hearts will never be practical – until they can be made un-breakable.” But we need to have heart – in the forms of compassion, generosity, thinking of the common good (such as the global AIDS effort), and taming the stigma and prejudice that still abound in HIV. At the times when we want to lash out, blame, and isolate, we need to call upon the deeper levels and higher order of “heart” to cope.

Certainly, we need lots of courage – not only when times are good, but when times are bad. From the time of our initial diagnosis, we need to find the courage and strength to keep on with life – to the harder times when we are sick, fatigued, frustrated, confused, or just fed up. We need courage to fight the big interests like pharmaceutical companies or health plans when they aren’t necessarily finding their “heart” – or when others lose theirs, like when our governors, Congress, or President vote against measures that help us. We need courage against other groups of people who stridently act out against us by oppressing those they fear or don’t understand, or those who believe we “deserve what we got” and want to dismiss our existence and strip us of our resources and our rights. We need courage to fight our virus’s ability to mutate and survive when we’re trying to vanquish it. We need to fight fatigue, fear of the unknown, fear of medications, and fear of “institutions”. Courage is continuing to act in the face of danger; to feel the fear but do what we need to do anyway. Just like the Cowardly Lion, we all deserve a medal of courage to wear proudly on our skinny, buff, hairy, flat, buxom, or waxed chests.

Most of all, we need what Dorothy so sincerely craved: Home. We need to have a home base to work from, where comfort, familiarity, personal preferences, friends, camaraderie, community, humor, tradition, and culture rein – in ways that differ for us all – whether we’re rural gay men or urban black women.

We all also live in our own personal Oz where we need to face challenges and confront our Wicked Witches — the people who want to take our powerful “shoes” away from us. We are witness to their callousness, sadism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, insecurity, and ignorance – all of which melt away when the clear power of truth (water) are applied to them.

As the Wizard said to the Tin Man, “A heart is not judged by how much you love… but by how much you are loved by others.” By the end of the film, Dorothy must take the sum of her experiences and look within to find the power she needs to get home again. The Good Witch teaches that while people usually already have great power within them, they have to learn to believe in it. The greatest gift, the power to find your heart’s desire in your own back yard, is the power you have to learn for yourself.

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