Activist Mary Fisher: How HIV inspired me to 'lighten the darkness' for strangers

Mary Fisher volunteering in Uganda.

Activist, author and artist Mary Fisher became the face of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the '90s, helping bring awareness and founding a nonprofit to raise money for research. Here, she writes about why, even in the aftermath of a devastating diagnosis, she decided to dedicate her life to helping others.

It was 1991. A doctor’s sympathetic voice was saying “I’m sorry, Mary,” explaining in gentle terms that my marriage to Brian had brought me not only two beautiful children but also one very ugly virus. I’d tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

There were no life-sustaining therapies then. Brian was soon dead, and I was planning how our two little boys would survive being orphans. In fact, the development of anti-retroviral drug therapies has kept me alive. But word of my impending death had already planted hard questions in my soul: Why am I here? Where will I find joy? Does my life — or, do I — really matter?

I was wrestling with such questions when I spoke to the Republican National Convention in 1992. AIDS was everywhere that political season, on the streets and in the news. Against the backdrop of fury and fear, I admitted, “I would never have asked to be HIV-positive. But I believe that in all things there is good purpose, and so I stand before you, and before the nation, gladly.”

Stephan Savoia / Today
Mary Fisher, center, actor Richard Gere, right, and Harvard AIDS Institute chairman Max Essex at an AIDS benefit event in Boston in 1995.

If, in my own life, there has been “good purpose” in living with AIDS, it has been this: I have learned, repeatedly, that we experience satisfaction and purpose in our lives when we do something kind and caring for others. And, yes, it is that simple.

One of my books is a simple journal of photographs and stories about caregivers in the AIDS epidemic. These were people who’d given their lives to the dying. When I asked what gave them strength, they’d tell me stories of the man who smiled when given a cool glass of water, or a patient who’d picked a flower for them, or the dying woman who mouthed, with her last breath, “Thank you for loving me.” They could not save those they loved, but they could love them with good deeds and simple kindnesses.

And we may think of scientists and researchers as brainy geniuses who are untroubled by passion. But I’ve met these people: mothers and sisters, fathers and sons, they juggle household budgets and Little League schedules. They giggle and they weep. What fueled their relentless search for the AIDS virus was not a pursuit of fame; it was knowing the pain of the illness, the grief of the dying. What drove them to the point of exhaustion was the desire to save my life. They cared.

But I’m not a life-saving scientist. I’m just a mother, a worker, a friend. What can I do — really, what can I do — that matters to others?

I can approach each day as an opportunity instead of a burden. When I wake, groggy and longing for coffee, before my brain goes racing off, I can take time to say I’m grateful to be alive. I can see the day as a gift I’ve received, not a right I’ve earned.

I recently met Thomas Morgan who’d invented a 100 Good Deeds Game. He defined a good deed as something we go out of our way to do and tell no one about. Then he challenged his school-aged daughter and son to do a hundred such acts of kindness. His idea inspired me to design the 1GD Bracelet.

The 1GD bracelet reminds people to stop and commit one good deed.

The 100 Good Deeds collection is intended to inspire simple acts of kindness. Each bracelet reminds us to do good, one deed, one bead, one act of kindness at a timeIt recognizes that most of us are willing to help others but we don't always see opportunities to help because we aren't looking. Or we're in a hurry. Or we think we shouldn't get involved. We have a hundred reasons not to do what our hearts tell us to do. Every time our fears say "don't do it," our bracelet says "do it!" It reminds us that getting involved is exactly what we need to do for each other.

In the few short weeks we’ve had the 100 Good Deeds website, we’ve heard of people who, when the person in front of them at the grocery check-out ran short of money, paid the stranger’s bill. Anonymously. Someone gave an hour’s babysitting to a frazzled young mother. Someone sent a thank-you note to their local police chief because she provides protection for the community. Such deeds are both good and small. But they matter.

The world is full of crises and agonies. AIDS continues to ravage and kill, especially the young. Cancer found me in 2012, and finds millions of others each year. Poverty and hunger, riots and wars, screamers on talk radio — it’s enough to make us all weary.

The antidote to such weariness is within our reach. By doing one kind deed, we can light the darkness for a stranger or a friend, and the memory of our small kindness will literally brighten our days and cheer our nights. It will give us purpose and joy. It will remind us Shakespeare had it right when his merchant of Venice said, “How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world.”

To learn more about the 1GD bracelet or purchase a bracelet, visit One hundred percent of proceeds from sales are reinvested in the 100 Good Deeds program, which is completely underwritten by charitable funds. Sales are used to develop additional employment for vulnerable women in Africa who will produce additional bracelets. There is no profit but we’re all winners: vulnerable women get employed and paid, and we get the satisfaction of doing 100 things that matter.