Since I was a medical student, a group of friends and I held Dr. Albert Schweitzer as our hero. He had what we considered the true call of a physician: to serve humanity. We badly need people like him today.
Dr. Schweitzer was born in Upper Alsace in 1875. When he was young, he became a remarkable organist and musicologist. He particularly excelled in performing the works of Johann Sebastian Bach.
While continuing his musical training at Strasbourg University, he pursued courses in philosophy and theology. When he was 22, he won a scholarship that allowed him to study philosophy at the Sorbonne and to continue studying the organ. At the age of 24, he received his doctorate in philosophy and the following year his doctorate in theology. When he was 26, he was elected head of the Theological Seminary of St. Thomas in Strasbourg.
During that period, he gave several organ concerts in the main European cities with considerable success. Hidden behind his successful career, however, were the yearnings of a young man eager to find a more profound meaning to his life.
When he turned 21, he had made a crucial decision: he would pursue his interests until he reached 30, after which he would devote his efforts to serving his fellow men to pay what he considered his debt to humanity. “It struck me as inconceivable that I should be allowed to lead such a happy life while I saw so many people around me struggling with sorrow and suffering,” he wrote. To that end, and taking time from his musical studies, he pursued a medical career. Quite by chance, he read a report of the Paris Mission Society about the desperate medical needs of the natives of Africa’ s Upper Congo and decided to work there.
His decision to reject fame and fortune and to go to Africa dismayed his family and friends. One of them, the dean of the medical school, advised him to see a psychiatrist. Undaunted, he traveled with his wife, Helene Bresslau, to Gabon, which was then part of French Equatorial Africa and built a small hospital in Lambaréné in what had been a chicken coop. He worked there until his death in 1965.
During a medical mission in Gabon, I decided to visit Lambaréné. I had been touring the grounds of Albert Schweitzer’s hospital, where the famous doctor cured thousands of Africans and helped them lead better lives. In Cité Soleil, created as a special ward for lepers next to the hospital, a community of lepers still lives. Three men were sitting on a bench, one of whom was trying to fix a musical instrument, his hands ravaged by disease. I took out my camera and was ready to take his picture when he said, “Don’t shoot!”
Startled by his reaction, I asked him why he didn’t want his picture taken. As he continued working, he said, “You don’t even say hello, you don’t ask for our permission, and you want to take our picture?” I apologized, greeted him properly and asked his permission to take a photograph, to which he readily agreed.
He taught me an important lesson. Although my intention had not been to show him any disrespect, that is what I was essentially doing. I felt I had the right to take his photograph because I thought it was an interesting scene, but I hadn’t respected his right to say no. That he was a leper, who had probably encountered much disrespect in the past, I realized, made my insensitivity even worse.
The man’s assertiveness about his rights and the atmosphere of pride in Cité Soleil were no accident. Dr. Schweitzer was remarkable for his respect for the needs of others, exemplified by his life of service to those less fortunate.
His activities earned him the admiration of figures such as Albert Einstein and Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. In 1952 he received the Nobel Peace Prize. The money from the prize went to fund the creation of Cité Soleil.
One day, looking at a herd of hippos in the Ogowe River close to the hospital, Dr. Schweitzer formed his commitment to revere life: “The greatest evil is to destroy life, to injure life, to repress life that is capable of development.”
I can’t help comparing Dr. Schweitzer’s approach to life to what is happening in today’s world. We live in what seems to be a permanent state of war and religion is an excuse to destroy life, rather than improve it.
People today talk of a clash of civilizations, when the real clash is the lack of respect for the other, the lack of dialogue, and the lack of effort to understand each other. Today we desperately need people of Dr. Schweitzer’s stature. We need to follow his philosophy, based on an essential respect for life. As he constantly stressed, the progress of civilization is closely linked to a conception of the importance of life. Only those who say “yes” to life are capable of making civilization progress.
When we look up in horror to the destruction of countries through wars based on false premises, we need to remember Dr. Schweitzer’s words in a 1963 letter to President John F. Kennedy, “The goal toward which we should direct our sight from now to the farthest future is that we should not let war decide issues that separate nations, but we should always try to find a pacific solution to them.”
We will reach that understanding only through dialogue with those who think differently from us, when we learn to listen to their concerns and fears. Perhaps then Dr. Schweitzer’s guiding principle will become a reality: “I am life that wants to live, surrounded by life that wants to live.”