Last Friday, I headed over to the Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale to interview Scott Fried, a renowned HIV/AIDS activist, mentor and community educator. Fried was invited to serve as Slifka’s Shabbat Scholar in Residence in honor of World AIDS Day on Dec. 1. On Friday, he spoke at a function held for Pride Shabbat. Online profiles of Fried say that he has talked to over a million teenagers across college and high school campuses worldwide. On his website, commendations from Bill Clinton, Elizabeth Taylor and anonymous teenagers decorate his legacy.
“Or use me,” Fried told me. “Or literally, it means, make of me your messenger. Let me be your messenger. And so: You come from Pakistan, I come from Brooklyn. We find ourselves in the same space, but it was the intention behind it that brought us there. We put out an intention into the world and said, ‘I must be useful. There must be a place for me.’”
Within seconds, and without much provocation, Fried decides what he must say to me. He asks me where I am from, what I am studying and how I feel. He remarks on my pearls and glaring lipstick with an uplifting but innocent pride. Our conversation becomes so immediately personal and emotionally resonant. What are you doing at Yale today, I ask. What are you, he responds. Immediately, he captures the untidy feelings I have for Yale just from a murmur in my expressions. He begins with the prayer that I too have started this journey of recollection with: “Here I am, God, send me.”
“When you say that prayer, we’re taught, you can’t argue where you’re sent. If you find yourself on a campus that’s not the oasis you thought it was going to be, or at a place where people don’t understand you or are not in alignment with your dreams or fantasies, or your vision, it’s still the answer to your prayer. It’s what you asked for. We asked for God to send us to the place where we are most useful. And if this is the place, then this is where I will do my work. And my work is simple — it’s actually not simple, it is hard work — but in a simple sentence: The work, once you get sent, is to love or try to love what is difficult to love. Because it is easy to love that which is easy to love; the people who are nice to you, the people who give you good grades, the people who invite you to lunch, the people who appeal to your sensibilities — that’s easy. But the ones who are different from you, or your political perspective, or your sexual orientation and gender expression, or people who feel different from you because of your cultural and religious upbringing. It’s our job to find a way to love them because we set out an intention. Make me useful, send me. And I ended up in New Haven today. You did and I did. And here we are together, almost colliding to do similar work which is, I think, how can I offer love in this place? How can I put whatever it is that only I, only you, can place in this world and community?”
The day I interviewed Fried, Nov. 30, was the 31st anniversary of the day he believes it all began. Thirt-one years ago on another Nov. 30, Fried scored the number of a stranger on a piece of paper, a stranger who would imminently infect Fried with HIV. He remembers the heartbreaking detail of the exact time in hours and minutes when he met the stranger who would alter the course of his life.
“I set out on a journey after that to figure out what to do with my life because I was only given three to five years to live back in ‘87; there was no meds. I was told that I had three to five years and then I would die. What can I do in the next three to five years that would be valuable, useful and the best way to spend the time that I was given with the body, brain and soul that I was given to use. And I was granted 31, not three to five. And the answer I was given was: Who can I love? Who needs to be loved? I know how to love, so who is lacking in that? Where is the compassion? Who needs it? I’ll give it.
To be a model and a mentor, to summon out of you the part of you that says I do belong, and I do have a place, and I will make for myself an oasis in the desert of the world, the wasteland that I am a part of. I am going to find a way to be useful and to find water. And that is what I consider to be my job for the past 30 or so years.”
Q: How do you find yourself giving love in places, or to people, who might be resistant to receiving it?
A: “I love people whether they receive my love or not. I accept radically, without judgement, people in the world whether they want it. I am not giving love as a condition. I will see that in you that is beautiful, that is waiting to grow, that wants to be cultivated, and help cultivate it. The great Leo Buscaglia used to say: If my arms are open and I want to give you a hug and you say no, I’m going to say that alright, that’s your loss, but my arms are still open, so who will get my hug? It is not about me. I offer my kindness, my friendship, my love. You accept it or not, that’s on you. I will keep my heart open.”
Q: You’ve traveled almost everywhere talking to our kids. What would you say about the state of our kids? Are they happy? Do they tell you if they aren’t? What kind of kids are unhappy?
A: “I wish more people would ask this question. I think, in general, there is a difficulty they face in growing into adulthood, the arc of adolescence. It requires us to be presented with, or collide into, what I poetically call the fateful ache. The fateful ache is what it sounds like: It is that existential yearning, that longing, that hunger, emptiness and pain inside ourselves that is fateful. It shows up when it is supposed to — in college, in growing up. It arrives to teach us something. There is a part of us that is always longing, trying to learn the world and our place in it and if we belong in it. The limiting self believes that society would challenge us with [the idea that] you’re not tall enough, you’re not masculine enough, or heterosexual, or heteronormative enough, or religious enough, or not blank enough.
So we start believing these beliefs and they become our self-limiting beliefs, our negative core beliefs. That has been around all the time. Everyone experiences a negative core belief: I do not belong or if you knew the real me, you would not love me. These are general beliefs that many of us hold. These happen when we are growing up. But lately, I’ve noticed, there’s more: There is a sense of separateness. There is a sense of longing in today’s society of young adults to belong and I only know that when I throw these ideas at them that they don’t believe, genuinely, that they belong. They believe that there is something in them that’s not valuable. Is it competition? Is it capitalism? Is it politics? Is it religion? Is it the absence of religion? I don’t know. There is a grief [in these kids today] that has not been stroked. There is something in the world that we inhabit that is desensitizing them. Is it school shootings? Is it social media?
When I wrote the book If “I Grow Up,” the idea was if I grow up because HIV might kill me. Now that we have all these medicines and methods to prevent it, the idea is that if HIV isn’t the thing that will kill me, what will? It could be a mall shooting, a school shooting or global warming. Or is it our current political climate? Of course there is a longing for connection.”
Q: Is there a way larger than just loving yourself or believing in yourself that can save our kids?
A: “The first thing I was taught when I got my diagnosis, in an ACT UP meeting, was this. You want to live? We’re starting to see that the people [who are infected with HIV/AIDS] who are living longer are the ones who have found a purpose. And the ones who haven’t die faster. To say this 31 years later is a big Oprah/Ram Dass duh kind of a thing to say, but back then we did not know what saved people and what did not. The answer to your questions is: What makes you get out of bed every morning? What is it that makes you want to say: I am going to face the day, purchase, tempt, dare and own the day? What is it that makes you feel that?
What is your answer to the prayer: I am here, God, send me? You are here to be a part of the answer to your own prayer.”
Zulfiqar Mannan | firstname.lastname@example.org .