Jean-Luc Romero-Michel: “Confronting death is the only way to truly live. »

- through Fabrice Groult

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Deputy mayor of the 1987th arrondissement of Paris, regional councilor for Ile-de-France and ambassador of an "Ile-de-France without AIDS", Jean-Luc Romero-Michel is a man of battles: AIDS, euthanasia, homosexuality, immigration, the politician regularly takes up subjects, sometimes still taboo, and tries to bring a humanist response to them, born of his own trials, he who contracted the HIV virus in 2018 and lost his husband, Christophe, in May XNUMX. Transforming oneself to help others, marrying well-being and public good, Jean-Luc Romero-Michel is a determined activist, who prefers an outstretched hand to a raised fist.

Like Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhists have often worked in the fight against AIDS. The Vietnamese master notably advocated the formation of groups within each religious community to discuss the dangers of this pandemic, the suffering it causes, how to support the sick and loved ones. Is this a big help for you?

Religions have a real influence on their followers, so it is essential that they mobilize against HIV, because it is not a virus like any other; it affects sexuality, drug use and remains deadly in countries that do not have access to treatment. In Africa, where many populations are very affected by this scourge, it has been crucial that certain Catholic priests and sisters dare to speak about condoms and defend the idea that they should be used to preserve life and thus stem its progression, and this contrary to what their hierarchy imposed on them. There is less judgment in Buddhism than in other religions. From the start of the epidemic in the 80s, Buddhists showed kindness to the sick, without stigmatizing the behavior or sexual orientation of people with HIV. In Africa, Asia and also sometimes here, they are often vulnerable populations and rejected because of their sexuality. For me, benevolence, respect for the other, the refusal to categorize the other and the bad guys from the good guys… allow us to work together for the good of all.

Thich Nhat Hanh also explained that mindfulness allows patients to better accept the disease and thus suffer less from it.

It is obvious ! This idea applies not only to AIDS, but also to all illnesses. Some people have a tendency to be in the ostrich, to be in denial, when they learn that they are ill, especially if it could be serious. In my eyes, it is more useful to face things. It has often been noticed: it is people who assume their pathologies who defend themselves best! This notion of the present moment is therefore fundamental to achieve this. But it is more and more complicated to live in Western societies, where we are constantly under pressure, where we are pushed to project ourselves, to think about what we will be doing in six months... But where will we be? in six months!? Living in the moment is the best thing to do when you have a terminal illness.

Here you join the teachings of the masters who explain that Buddhism is an uncompromising confrontation with reality, even if it is complicated to apply on a daily basis.

Indeed, confronting reality is the only way to truly live, because when you run away from problems, they come back. When I learned of my HIV status in 1987, at the age of 28, this news sounded like a death sentence! What to do after such an announcement? It seemed obvious to me: I simply returned to my work as a parliamentary assistant. I continued to live, to have a social life – certainly different because of the disease – and above all, I took care of others. Somehow, I forgot about my own disease when I took care of others. At the time, around me, it was a real hecatomb… I was thus able to observe that, very often, it is people who suffer from serious pathologies and who assume it who come out of it. We cannot generalize, but the fact of not being afraid of the disease, of not being ashamed to talk about it – a disease is never shameful! – and paying attention to others changes the way we look at ourselves and the disease. Which helps to get better.

In the end, this confrontation with death has given you a taste for life and that of others...

Paradoxically, this virus was lucky! When we learn that we may die in the months that follow, either we collapse or we choose to live. It was then that I became aware of this notion of the present moment, which had spoken to me for a very long time, but which I did not practice: to take advantage of the moment, because there may not be next day… I also learned to love others better, to pay them more attention, because I understood that everything is ephemeral. The subject of death, of the end of life, is taboo in the West: it sometimes seems that some people don't even know that they are going to die! They run ever faster, in all directions and realize, in the last moments, that they have not lived. Life is first of all what we build with others.

On this subject, the Dalai Lama declared that “in certain exceptional cases, euthanasia may be a remedy. If the circumstances are such that the patient is in a coma from which he will not emerge, that he is kept alive artificially, and that the family must face great material difficulties in order to prolong this state, euthanasia is then possible. " What do you think ?

It's a step. We rarely hear this word among religious people, except among Protestants. Religions rather tend to say that suffering is redemptive... Certainly, it can help to move forward in a certain way, but nothing should force us to live it when, in the last moments of life, it no longer allows the sick to live decently, even which make them odious, because the physical and psychological pain is unbearable.

“A chosen death is a conscious death. »

My reflection on this subject is rooted in my personal experiences. I have seen so many young people die in great suffering when they asked that we stop the therapeutic relentlessness, and that we did not hear them. It's intolerable ! I repeat: nothing obliges us when the end is imminent to have to die in such great suffering.

Each religion has a specific approach to this particular moment of end of life and death. Should this right to die with dignity that you are defending take into account religious discourse or, on the contrary, should it only be exercised in a secular context?

Religions obviously have their say in this debate. Secular does not mean that religions are excluded, but that it is not they who enact the laws. They must not impose their point of view, this is what certain bishops, like Cardinal Barbarin, do not understand. I am not a euthanasia activist, I am a freedom and choice activist! I hope that we listen and that we take into account all opinions: the choice of a person who would like to live as long as possible, even if it means suffering, must be respected. Conversely, when a patient feels that his suffering no longer has any meaning, there too, we must listen to him. We therefore need a law that lays down a general framework to protect the weakest, on which we can then reflect on a case-by-case basis.

You defend the right to die with dignity. Tibetan Buddhists consider that the last moment just before dying, the last thought, is an essential moment to free oneself from all the negative things one has experienced and, ideally, to be reborn in better conditions. What do you think ?

There is nothing incompatible with this: a chosen death is a conscious death! The majority of people die at night, alone in the hospital, if nothing has been done before, they sink without having been able to speak to their loved ones. It's not the best way to die being at peace with yourself. Especially since in these moments of end of life, there are often many points to settle, things left unsaid, words to say... When we choose the moment to die, it not only allows us to prepare those around us and to leave them beautiful memories and also to take stock of his life to leave in peace. I specify that committing to euthanasia or assisted suicide is not done in two days! There is a whole process to follow and a deadline to respect – one month in Belgium for example – which allows for real reflection. That's why I think the chosen dead are the most conscious.

photo of author

Fabrice Groult

Fabrice Groult is an adventurer, photographer and Buddhist who has traveled the world since a young age. After studying Buddhism in India, he embarked on an eighteen-month journey through Asia that took him to the Himalayas, where he discovered his passion for photography. Since then, he has traveled the world capturing images of Buddhist beauty and wisdom. He was a guide for ten years, and is now a journalist with Buddhist News.

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