Death and Devotion: Leather Fiesta 2018 Keynote Speech

Posted: November 11, 2018 by Isaac Cross in Advice, Learn Something, Philosophy

(The following is the keynote address delivered at the Leather Fiesta conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico on November 11, 2018)

Here’s a challenge: I want you to believe what I am about to tell you. Not just hear it, not just understand it, but believe it. It’s a fact that you already know to be true, but have never been able to fully accept, and it’s this: you are going to die. You, the person listening to me right now, are going to die.

It’s difficult even to imagine, isn’t it? Take a moment and try to picture what it’s like to not exist. You can’t do it. You’re Imagining darkness, black. But there will be no black. There will be no color because there will be no you to perceive it. And your mind recoils from that idea. It’s basically unable to conceive of its own nonexistence. So, it concludes that it is impossible, that you’ll live forever. But you won’t. All things end. All motion slows. All heat becomes cold. Life is an eddy in that current of entropy. A brief chemical reaction that lights up the darkness and then, it’s fuel spent, dissipates back to nothing. Just like you will.

Your body is a marvelous and intricate machine, built out of millions of interconnected, fragile systems. And as you age, each begins to slowly but surely deteriorate and break down. When one fails, a doctor may be able to repair it, but at some point, there will be too many interlocking failures to proceed. And like a cascade of dominoes, your joints, your eyes, your heart, your lungs, your memory, your entire body will fail. It will happen. And while it is difficult to hear this truth, it is essential that you accept it. Because every second that goes by in which you don’t is a second of your precious and finite life that you risk wasting.

So I’m Going to say this one more time, and this time, try as hard as you can to believe me. You, yes you, will die, and there is nothing you can do to stop it.

Those were not my words. I selected them because of how much they impacted me when I heard them. That is the opening monologue from an episode of a show called “Adam Ruins Everything”. It’s a wonderful show that all of you should watch. A new season starts in a couple weeks on TruTV and you can see some previous episodes on Netflix. On the show, Adam Conover and his creative team seek to dispel popular misconceptions about the world. Things like whether the TSA makes air travel safer or whether herpes is actually a big deal.

By the way, Herpes is definitely not a big deal. It’s a minor, treatable disease that 90% of you already have.

The most striking thing about Adam Ruins Everything, and that episode in particular, entitled “Adam Ruins Death”, is the way that Adam and writing team work to embrace uncertainty and fear. A running theme in the show is the importance of being aware of your own fear and the way that other people in the world seek to control you through that fear. They encourage you to acknowledge that you will never be truly safe so that you can be more reasonable in deciding which dangers are significant enough to be worth the cost of trying to avoid them.

The other reason I chose the opening quote was because I have recently been fascinated to learn about the life of an absolutely incredible woman named Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Most of you are probably familiar with her work in creating the “Five States of Grief” model, asserting that when faced with their own death, people pass through the emotions of Denial, Anger, Bargaining, and Depression, before final reaching the stage of Acceptance. But chances are that’s all you know about her. So I would like to take a while and tell you a bit more.

Kübler-Ross began her career doing relief work in Zurick during world war II at the age of only thirteen and at one point, visited the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland where she met a girl who was alive only because there wasn’t enough room for her in the gas chamber when the final group was executed. Rather than remain bitter, Kübler-Ross recalled, this girl had chosen to forgive and forget. The girl said, “If I can change one person’s life from hatred and revenge to love and compassion, then I deserved to survive.”

Later, Kübler-Ross went to medical school, married an American classmate, and moved to the United States. Ironically, she was disqualified from taking a residency in pediatrics because she was pregnant. So instead, she did her residency in psychology, eventually accepting a position in my home town at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. While there, some theology students asked her for help on a research project concerning death. To help with the project, she began holding intimate interviews with terminally ill patients in front of hospital staff members, medical students, and theology students. Initially, the medical community shunned her seminars but in time they became so well-attended they had to be moved to a large auditorium. Eventually, her seminar became an accredited course. She became increasingly interested and appalled at the quality of care and counselling provided to the terminally ill. This concern led to the writing her first book “On Death and Dying” where she first proposed the five stages of grief.

This led to a long career caring for the dying and their families and sharing what she was learning with others. She was awarded dozens of doctorate degrees from institutions around the county, built the Shanti Nilaya Healing Center in Escondido, California and founded the American Holistic Medical Association.

Then came the 1980s. And soon, she found that many of those seeking her comfort and care were those that had contracted AIDS. Inspired by the British Doctor Cicely Saunders, she developed a plan to build a dedicated hospice for those infected with HIV, to serve as their last home. A comfortable and peaceful place where they could live their final days with their loved-ones and die with dignity. Unfortunately, this dream never came to pass. Because when she sought to build it, local residents were so afraid that they would somehow contract the disease themselves, that they changed local ordinances and zoning codes to prevent the project from being approved. In 1994 she lost everything she owned when anti-gay opponents of her work burned her house to the ground. Shortly after, she suffered a series of strokes that left her partially paralyzed and confined to a wheel chair for the rest of her life.

I would be bitter. I would be angry. I would be scared. And she might have been, too. But what she did about it was work with a longtime colleague, David Kessler, to write the book “Life Lessons: Two Experts on Death and Dying Teach Us About the Mysteries of Life and Living.” And in this book, she wrote:

If we could literally reach into you and remove all your fears – every one of them – how different would your life be? Think about it. If nothing stopped you from following your dreams, your life would probably be very different. This is what the dying learn. Dying makes our worst fears come forward to be faced directly. It helps us see the different life that is possible, and in that vision, takes the rest of our fears away.

Unfortunately, by the time the fear is gone most of us are too sick or too old to do those things we would have done before, had we not been afraid. […] Thus, one lesson becomes clear: we must transcend our fears while we can still do those things we dream of.

To transcend fear though, we must move somewhere else emotionally; we must move into love.

Happiness, anxiety, joy, resentment — we have many words for the many emotions we experience in our lifetimes. But deep down, at our cores, there are only two emotions: love and fear… But it’s more accurate to say that there is only love OR fear, for we cannot feel these two emotions together, at exactly the same time. … Every moment offers the choice to choose one or the other. And we must continually make these choices, especially in difficult circumstances when our commitment to love, instead of fear, is challenged.

Having chosen love, doesn’t mean you will never fear again. In fact it means that many of your fears will come up to finally be healed. This is an ongoing process. Remember that you will become fearful after you’ve chosen love, just as we become hungry after we eat. We must continually choose love in order to nourish our souls and drive away fear, just as we eat to nourish our bodies and drive away hunger.

Dr. Kübler-Ross died 14 years ago, 400 miles from here in Scottsdale, Arizona. At peace with her life and ready for death. May we all be so lucky.

Our world is a scary one, filled with threats. As a species, we discovered the answer thousands of years ago. To love and trust one another. And in doing so, we were able to change from a scattered band of weak, vulnerable primates into the dominant species on earth. To quote Star Wars, we don’t win by fighting what we hate, but by saving what we love.

This community was born when a group of sexual outlaws decided to live a life of joyful and raucous rebellion. Today, we have become a fractured collection of cliques, each eager to be offended by the actions of the others.

In his Keynote Speech at Revelry three weeks ago, Hardy Haberman said

“Keeping all our triggers cocked. Calling out everyone without any attempt to understand them, without calling them into a meaningful dialogue may very well might be the reason we will not survive as a community or in the greater sense why our country might not survive as a democracy.”

I’m not telling you not to be afraid or angry. I don’t believe we can control our feelings. What I am telling you is to walk a better path. Affirm your feelings, they are valid. But choose your actions.

I’m not telling you not to fight, because we HAVE to fight. We have to resist and rebel against not only the oppressive actions of the powerful, but against the pervasive drive within ourselves to lash out.

It’s about focus. Some people get so lost in their anger, in their hate, in their fear. And they lose touch with love, acting only from that place of hurt. They aren’t wrong or bad for doing it, but they are harmful. Because they stop making strategic decisions. It’s no longer about the best path to victory. It’s no longer about saving what they love. It’s about hurting those they hate. At all costs. And that cost is high. We begin to see enemies all around us. Every misplaced word or ill-timed joke becomes the new subject of a boycott. You sleep with a torch under your pillow in case you need to spring into action to stop someone from putting a cage in the logo for their kink event at the same time as something kinda like cages is a thing in the news cycle right now. Every action by people outside of your circle becomes part of a plot to destroy you. Suddenly, your Facebook posts become nothing but an endless list of grievances against the world. And the big problems seem so big and the people who can fix them seem so fucking far away. So in a desperate effort to accomplish SOMETHING, you target not the people who literally want you dead, but instead a much closer and easier target, the people who don’t want to hurt you at all. The people who love you, because they’re less likely to hit back. And you’re scared.

I’m scared all the time. I’m scared that the worst atrocities I learned about in my school textbooks will be footnote to those studied by the next few generations. I’m scared that the community that helped me learn to accept and love myself will not be here to help the lost who come searching in the future. I’m scared that very soon, my dad will die. I’m scared that someone I love will have a mental health crisis and no one around them will notice or know what to do. I am scared that because of my privilege as a white, middle class, male who passes for straight, I will survive all of this with nothing but the memories of my friends and partners who weren’t so lucky.

I wish I could say I’ve handled it all with grace and love. I haven’t. I’ve lashed out. I’ve lost friends. I haven’t spoken to my brother in two years.

But I’m trying to choose love as often as I can. I’m engaged with politics. I’m learning as much as I can and I’m trying to organize others. I am building community resources that aren’t reliant on physical spaces that may be lost to us one day. I’m living with my dad for a few months, to spend some quality time with him in case he passes soon. And I’m having all the great sex I can get my hands on.

Fear can be a positive force. It’s centuries of evolutionary instincts that warn you of threats and motivate you to mitigate them. But when we immerse ourselves in fear, not only does the quality of our actions suffer, but so do we. We miss the moments that matter most because we’re too busy fighting. So take a moment, right now, and imagine what you would choose to do in your life, today, if fear wasn’t ever-present in our lives. What would you do if you weren’t worried about money? What would you do if you weren’t ashamed of your kink? What would you do if you weren’t constantly spending time writing about people and things your hate? What would you do if there was nothing to fill your days except joy and love and the pursuit of what interests and amazes you.

(long pause)

I can’t promise you that any of those things will come to pass. Many of your dreams will never come come true. Dr. Kübler-Ross never got her hospice center in California. But you know what. Right now, a few miles from here is an apartment complex called Sleepy Hollow, which is owned by New Mexico AIDS Services. And there are dozens more like it all over the country where people with AIDS can go to live in peace. Because sometimes, when we live a life of love and don’t quite reach our goal, others will be inspired, pick up where we left off, and achieve more than we ever dared to dream. Just 50 years after Dr. King had a dream, we elected a black man to be president. Just 20 years after Matthew Sheppard was murdered for being gay, Colorado has elected a gay man to be governor. In 1941, the first women ever elected to congress was booed and hissed at when she was the sole vote against sending drafted soldiers to war, a vote that ended her political career. But in 1985, a statue of her was placed in the US capitol building. And inscribed on its base, the words “I cannot vote for war.” And last week, voters across America chose more than 120 women to represent them in Congress next year.

Being afraid is easy. Being in love is hard.

But I believe we all need to be more like that young girl at the concentration camp who urged us to forgive and live. To be more like that old, paralyzed, poor scientist who taught us to care for the hopeless, even when we have nothing left.

“There are only two emotions: love and fear.” In every choice, we are either moving towards something that we love or we are moving away from something we fear. When we are very lucky, both of those paths lead in the same direction, but usually they do not. If we follow the path of fear, we are almost certainly sacrificing something that we love.

As we all know, fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate and hate leads where? To the dark side.

One day, you will die. And when you look back at your life, your fears will fall away and in their place will be the cavernous gaps of missed opportunities when you could have been holding tight to the things and people you love. Have more fun than fights. Make your daily actions look more like love than loathing.

I have one last quote for you.

We’re not saying you can change him. Because people don’t really change.
All we’re saying is love’s a force that’s powerful and strange.
People make bad choices when they’re mad or scared or stressed.
But throw a little love their way and you’ll bring out their best.

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