By James Monroe
Editor's Note: This article was written before the
bombing of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 and
thus was not prepared with those specific events in mind.
However, its message is in many ways very important in
difficult times such as these.
Empowerment is about making choices consistent with the
person we are, not the person others expect us to be. This
aspect of empowerment relates to being an authentic person.
Empowerment also involves acquiring virtues, such as honesty
and courage. This aspect of empowerment accentuates its
This article is divided into four major sections: ways to
surmount depression (since many people with HIV are depressed
and since one cannot be empowered while being depressed); an
overview of basic elements of empowerment; methods of
effectively dealing with others; and a review of the qualities
of happy people (for to become empowered is to become happy).
Ways to Surmount Depression
By making people uncomfortable,
depression often motivates them to take the steps needed to
overcome it. This is a positive effect of depression.
In addition to biological or organic reasons for
depression, individuals may be depressed because of situations
or circumstances related to being HIV positive or because of
the stigma of being HIV positive and/or being gay or an
intravenous drug user. Because life goes on despite our HIV
status, many other things, independent of our HIV status, may
cause us to be depressed!
While I have not battled organic or biological depression,
I have experienced being depressed over changed circumstances.
For several months, I was depressed after having moved from
Chicago to a small rural Connecticut town of 6,000 persons.
The loss of the stimulating city environment, good
restaurants, friends, the ready companionship of gay people,
and the ability to write at various interesting coffee shops
(our town only has a Dunkin' Donuts located in a small strip
I rejected my doctor's advice to take anti-depressants
(although this is in no way a judgment of people who take
anti-depressants). I felt I understood the causes of my
depression and the general steps I needed to end it -- obtain
interesting volunteer work, get involved socially with gay
people, and find outside sources of stimulation (e.g.,
interesting getaways or places to visit). I gradually
developed these outlets and my depression ceased.
Like many, I have adjusted to "poverty" -- from
making $40,000 as the head of a non-profit organization to
less than $12,000 on Social Security disability benefits.
While this is an economic loss, there are ways in which it
could be looked at as a gain. But this required me to look
creatively at my situation. See the section on "Viewing
Our Situation Creatively." Viewing one's situation
creatively, rather than looking at oneself as a victim, is
essential to overcome depression.
Depression and Our Changed Situation
Situational depression may include those
circumstances where one feels or experiences some type of
loss. One's loss may include such diverse things as:
- death or disability of a
friend or lover;
- temporary or permanent
HIV-related limitations (e.g., the loss of the ability to
walk due to neuropathy);
- change in one's appearance,
such as facial wasting;
- change in one's sex life
(negotiation of safer sex, changes in dating behavior); or
- changing one's environment or
living situation because of poverty, which occurs for many
of us to ensure drug coverage or public benefits.
Particularly for those who did not grow up poor, learning
to thrive despite poverty is a learning experience.
People should take a reasonable time to grieve or
acknowledge the loss they have experienced. After grieving our
loss, we must prepare to move on and accept it. Acceptance
implies that we will overcome any resentment. We must learn to
dance with our pain and find joy despite the losses we have
It is preferable to accept our situation and adapt to it
rather than being bitter. We can choose to hold on to our
anger or release it. Acceptance enables us to truly live,
grow, discover new interests, and take new paths on our
Changing our attitude is critical to surmounting
depression. Viktor Frankl, the psychiatrist and concentration
camp survivor, in his best-selling Man's Search for Meaning,
noted that there were people in the concentration camps who
comforted others and gave away their last piece of bread. He
concludes that such people "offer sufficient proof that
everything can be taken from a person but one thing: the last
of the human freedoms -- the ability to choose one's attitude
in any given set of circumstances."
Facing Our Changed Situations
Facing our changed situations will
require us to summon our patience, resourcefulness, coping
mechanisms, the ability to analyze a situation and to develop
a strategy to cope with it.
In order to analyze the situation so as to develop the best
strategy, one should not make decisions while being upset or
angry. This is one lesson that is appropriate when dealing
with bureaucracies such as public aid or drug-assistance
Viewing Our Situation Creatively (or Re-viewing Our
To view one's situation creatively is to
re-interpret a bad or negative situation as a good or positive
one. This is simply a matter of changing one's perspective.
Many HIV-positive people have admirably done this. They have
viewed HIV to have enhanced their life by causing them to:
- re-examine their priorities,
relationships, and satisfaction at work;
- live more deliberately and
- be more honest and direct with
- be who they are, rather than
what others expect them to be.
To illustrate how one situation can be viewed creatively,
consider the state of poverty. Many people may consider
poverty to be a bad or negative circumstance. But the
following are some of the positive aspects of poverty. Poverty
provides the opportunity for:
- reflection and solitude,
because we will have less opportunity to go out to do
things which require us to spend money. In short, we may
have to stay at home more often;
- doing important things that do
not require money; and
- examining our materialism and
the role of objects and things in our life.
Depression and Stigma: Stigma is a function of how
others perceive us; more importantly it is also a reflection
of how we perceive ourselves. We allow ourselves to feel
stigma. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, no one can make you feel
inferior without your consent.
To avoid feeling stigma we will often need to reject the
opinion of the majority of people, who believe that some
aspect of our behavior is morally wrong.
People who are conformists may have a more difficult time
coping with the stigmatized views of the majority.
Nonconformists who do their own thinking and who routinely
question the standards of the majority will have an easier
time discounting these standards!
Rising Above Stigma: Two major ways to rise above
stigma are to define oneself as normal and lovable. This may
require you to question societal norms and religious doctrine.
To do the latter, you might delve into the Bible to understand
religious passages and the historic context in which they were
written. As HIV-positive people, the ability to define oneself
as normal may require that we come to see our natures as valid
To define ourselves as lovable, we must learn to care about
ourselves. The more we take good care of ourselves, the more
lovable we will find ourselves. Before I knew I was HIV
positive, I found that HIV-positive people taught me more
self-love and self-respect.
Focusing On Others: One possible key to surmounting
depression, which causes us to focus on ourselves, is to get
out of our shell by focusing on others. To do so, we can get
involved in civic and community organizations that focus on
causes important to us. Or we can work on projects that get
and keep us involved.
Empowerment: The Basics
Following are some of the fundamental
principles of becoming an empowered individual.
Becoming Comfortable With Ourselves: Being an
authentic person involves being comfortable with who we are
and with our friends and associates. In becoming authentic, we
grant ourselves the opportunity to have a life that works. I
once met a person who knew his friends were all
"wrong" for him or at least a bad influence on him.
He was afraid (and not secure enough) to leave these friends
behind. In his view, to do away with his friendship circle
would make him lonely.
There are many ways to be comfortable with who we are. One
of the most significant ways is to be able to talk about who
we are and what is important to us. (This concept is discussed
in the next section on "Developing
Honesty and Courage.")
Another simple way to be more comfortable with yourself,
and to enhance your work life, is to determine your natural
gifts. When you use your natural gifts at work, your work
sometimes becomes a mission. Your natural gifts are the things
you do effortlessly and may include the facility of working
with numbers or the ability to draft, draw, write clearly or
Many people end up in careers that do not use their natural
gifts and, as a result, they must work harder at these
careers. Imagine having the innate ability to dance, yet
working for the census bureau! Having the courage to admit to
yourself that your interests have changed, or that you entered
a career at which you could not excel, takes inner strength
and, ultimately, the courage to change direction.
Most people have many natural gifts. To see with awe all
the natural gifts we have been given is to practice gratitude
and to realize how fortunate we are.
Developing Honesty and Courage
For gay men and lesbians, and for all who
are HIV positive, the process of coming out is a critical
claim of our authenticity. In coming out we are able to talk
about who we are, a process of asserting ourselves.
Many positive effects will flow from our honesty. First, we
will begin to develop a wider self acceptance and with it our
self respect is likely to increase. Second, the honesty and
courage needed to come out will jump start our integrity.
Third, coming out also increases our resilience and
prepares us for the possible cruel rejection of a few and the
many unexpected hugs and blessings of the enlightened. With
resilience, we are prepared for the next risk or challenge.
Oddly enough, we become resilient by making ourselves
vulnerable. By becoming resilient, we prepare to be fierce and
are, therefore, unable to be injured.
Fourth, you will attract other honest and courageous
people. You will repel game players. As more honest and
courageous people are drawn to you, the more authentic you
Fifth, as we become honest and courageous, we are likely to
become good people. A good person is not the same thing as a
nice person. A nice person may be polite and may tell you what
you want to hear. Being good requires that we contribute to
the planet in some way. Activism is one vehicle that enables
us to contribute to the planet and exercise our virtues.
Empowerment, therefore, draws us toward activism.
Activism is one of the obligations of empowerment. So
empowerment requires us to work, and it is this work that sets
us free. As Cicero said, to be free one must be a slave to a
set of rules.
Activism causes us to focus on others and, therefore,
reduces our self-centeredness. As Mother Theresa said,
"by forgetting ourselves, we find ourselves."
Learning to Appreciate Solitude: Learning to use
solitude effectively also enables us to be comfortable with
ourselves and to develop awareness. We can use solitude to
learn who we are and how we define ourselves. With reflection,
we can see the steps we must take to change our direction.
Unless we change our direction, we will end up where we are
Becoming Aware: Many people are awake yet asleep.
Becoming aware is the process of becoming alert. Awareness has
an inward and outward dimension. To be aware we must have the
capacity to look inward to see who we are. We must consider
what we need to change about ourselves. To be aware we must
also be sensitive to those around us by looking outward. Thus,
to be aware is to be respectful of others.
Gaining Control of Our Emotions: The more empowered
we become, the more likely we are able to gain control of our
emotions and move beyond our anger. Anger, for example, might
be the basis for civil disobedience. Anger can be an effective
emotion, although it is not the most effective one. Anger's
downside is that it tends to separate us from others. To treat
the enemy lovingly (Gandhi's opponents were afraid to even
meet with him lest they fall under the spell of his charisma)
will dissolve any separation we may feel from the other. The
change in others in response to our love will be more sincere
and without reluctance.
Many with HIV are, understandably, angry because their life
has changed so much. Indeed there are many losses associated
with being HIV positive.
Anger is damaging because it prevents us from accepting our
situation. Only when we accept our situation can we begin to
deal with it. Anger is also damaging because it can deplete
Being Able to Make Decisions: Empowered people are
able to make decisions. They do not waste their time deciding
to decide. Their decisions are based on their priorities. They
are not paralyzed by indecision and procrastination!
Honoring One's Commitments: Empowered people tend to
do well whatever they choose to do. They honor their
commitments and, at the same time, have the important ability
to say no.
Methods of Effectively Dealing With Others
The empowered person must be able to
effectively deal with and relate to others. Effectively
dealing with others will cause you to feel more control in
your life. The empowered leader must also be able to motivate
Dealing With others, the most important aspect of
empowerment, relates to:
- being honest when
communicating with others;
- clearly communicating with
- managing our egos (which will
enable us to effectively listen to others);
- planning for the future; and
- breaking down projects or
goals into manageable tasks.
Because empowered people deal effectively with others, they
have a reputation for getting things done.
Honest Communication With Others: Honest
communication is one of the hallmarks of empowered
communicators. Many people fear being honest because it will
make them vulnerable. But people often open up to us and form
relationships with us when we make ourselves vulnerable, not
when we show our strengths.
Being Clear: In dealing with others, clear
communication is critical. It will decrease or eliminate any
feeling of frustration or uncertainty. Effective communication
is both a skill and an art. It relies on our intuition and our
sense of timing. Comments at one time, would be inappropriate
at a different time. As the Book of Ecclesiastes
reminds us, there is a season for everything under the
Being direct and saying what you mean is the essence of
clear communication. Clear communication enables the person
you are communicating with to understand your expectations.
You can clarify your expectations by giving the other person a
timeline or deadline and describing comprehensively your
approach to a project.
Managing Our Egos: Our egos can be a tremendous
barrier to effectively dealing with others. Our egos get in
the way of listening. Our egos prevent us from having a real
conversation with another because they would have us believe
that only we can teach others and that we may have little to
learn from them. Our egos can also cause us to hastily judge
or evaluate (and usually dismiss) what others are saying.
To manage our egos, we can admit when we are wrong, attempt
to see the situation from another's perspective, and view all
people as possible teachers (then we will believe that we have
something to learn from them). Managing our egos will make us
more effective listeners.
The Ability to Plan: The ability to plan implies
that individuals will commit to the tasks that must be
completed for a project to be finished. The empowered person
follows through with any plans. Thus, empowered people are
persistent and determined.
Empowered people make commitments and honor them. This
gives them credibility with their peers. Once people know you
by reputation, they will trust your ability to plan and to get
In my capacity as the head of a few non-profit
organizations, I have been amazed at how many people are
unable or unwilling to make concrete plans (or make a
commitment to them) even a few weeks into the future. This
inability may result from difficulty in saying "no,"
or people may be unable to make commitments because they are
game players or procrastinators.
Many people take on too many commitments and do not
effectively assess the time these projects will take or
whether they relate to their personal priorities. Failing to
follow through with a project is much worse than saying no.
Likewise, being very honest with the person who is unable
to make a commitment will often elicit an answer. In raising
money for organizations, for example, people often say
"we'll do something." This often means "we'll
also decide when we'll do something." Explain that for
planning purposes and to track the success of its fundraising
campaign, the organization needs to know how much money is
being collected over the short- and long-term. Or, just ask
the person if, in a few weeks, they would be able to determine
the extent of their commitment to your organization's
Because empowered people are do-ers, they do not tolerate
unproductive people or people who do not finish projects. They
do not play games with people.
Empowerment and Happiness
Empowerment should lead to our happiness.
Happiness relates to the fulfillment we find in life. Viktor
Frankl referred to this fulfillment as the end result of the
search for meaning; psychologist Abraham Maslow called it
Our happiness will be related to the extent we are
comfortable with ourselves, honest with others, and courageous
enough to say who we are. Many philosophers, theologians,
psychologists, and sociologists have written about happiness.
There is much agreement about the basic elements of happiness.
Happiness is defined from within. Happy people do their own
thinking and make their own life choices. Consequently, they
are internally directed.
The experts agree that happy people have meaning in their
life, have a finely developed value system, and face reality
by accepting their situation as it is.
Happiness and Meaning in Life: Having meaning in
life means having an important purpose for living. It may
include being passionate about something important to oneself:
a hobby, relationship, job, or service to others. Viktor
Frankl has noted that concentration camp survivors who knew
there was a task waiting for them to fulfill were most apt to
Happiness and a Value System: Happy people have a
finely developed value system. They are honest and have the
courage to tell the truth. They mind their own business and
focus on themselves. As a result, they are unlikely to gossip
or mind someone else's business.
Happiness and Acceptance: Happy people accept
reality. They accept where they are at any moment. Many people
are happy despite the fact that they are suffering with
physical pain or conditions. Happiness therefore is an inner
strength that is manifest by a positive attitude and outlook.
Other Qualities of Happy People: Happy people are
clear about their priorities and the goals they develop for
themselves are all closely related to these priorities. Happy
people would not be afraid to act consistent with their life
or job-related priorities.
In conclusion, to become empowered is to dance through life
and not to be encumbered by bad things that may happen to us,
including suffering. Becoming empowered is about becoming
virtuous, about being more honest and courageous and about
reaching out in the service of others. Empowerment is also
about finding meaning in life, a critical form of fulfillment
that will enable us to be happy. Good luck on your journey!
James Monroe Smith was the founding executive director
of the AIDS Legal Council of Chicago (1987), a post he
occupied until April 1992. He has taught at the college and
law school level. He is the author of AIDS & Society
(Prentice-Hall, 1996) and Producing Patient-Centered
Health Care (Greenwood Publishing Group, 1999).
to the November
2001 issue of Body Positive magazine.
article was provided by Body