Cesar Chelala
A physician and writer

Dr. Albert Schweitzer’s Lesson

I had been touring the grounds of Albert Schweitzer’s hospital, in Lambaréné, Gabon, 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, still lives a community of lepers. 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 a 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 to him, greeted him properly and asked his permission for 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 quiet pride in Cité Soleil, I also realized, 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.

Dr. Schweitzer had left a brilliant professional career in Europe as a musician and a theologian to become a physician, moved to Africa with his wife, built a hospital in Lambaréné from what had been a chicken coop, and devoted his life to treating thousands of patients out of a great sense of personal duty.

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. He devoted the money from the prize 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 couldn’t help comparing Dr. Schweitzer’s approach to life to what is happening in today’s world, when we live in what seems to be a permanent state of war and where the reasons for going to war are becoming more and more irrelevant. We live in a world where religion is used to destroy, not to improve life.

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’s situation resembles a conversation in which everyone wants to express his point of view without hearing the other person’s point of view or concerns.

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, to the world in which we live, are capable of making civilization progress.

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 in different ways 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.”

About the Author
César Chelala is a physician and writer born in Argentina and living in the U.S. He wrote for leading newspapers all over the world and for the main medical journals, among them The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Japan Times, The China Daily, The Moscow Times, The International Herald Tribune, Le Monde Diplomatique, Harvard International Review, The Journal of the American Medical Association, The Lancet, Annals of Internal Medicine, and The British Medical Journal. He is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award and two national journalism awards from Argentina.