“The meaning of life is arrived at . . . by dark gropings, by feelings not wholly understood, by catching at hints and fumbling for explanations. ” Alfred Adler 1930
“To grow in youngness is a blow.
To age into sickness is an insult.
To die is, if we are not careful, to turn from God’s breast, feeling slighted and unloved.
The sparrow asks to be seen as it falls.
Philosophy must try, as best it can, to turn the sparrows to flights of angels, which, Shakespeare wrote, sing us to our rest.” Written by Ray Bradbury.
Albert Schweitzer Reverence for Life
The moment of personal transformation for Dr. Albert Schweitzer, a conversion and metanoia:
Albert Schweitzer, born on January 14, 1875 in Alsace, Germany (now a part of France), was the son of a Lutheran minister and member of a family of ministers, scholars and musicians, which included a famous cousin, Jean-Paul Sartre. As a child, Schweitzer played the organ and piano, and was only nine when he first performed at his father’s church. His musical talent earned him international recognition. Although he dedicated his life to the healing profession, he continued to perform as an organist throughout his life, even publishing a book on organ construction and a biography on Bach.
In 1893, Schweitzer enrolled at the University of Strasbourg. He received a doctorate in philosophy in 1899 and a teaching degree in theology the following year. Following in the footsteps of his father, Schweitzer became the pastor of Saint Nicholas Church in Strasbourg and worked at the Theological College of Saint Thomas for nearly a decade. During that time, he published, among other works, a scholarly text entitled The Quest of the Historical Jesus.
In 1904, Schweitzer experienced a turning point in his life after reading an article published by the Paris Missionary Society, which highlighted an urgent need for physicians in Gabon, a French colony in Africa. The article so moved him that he immediately decided to pursue a medical career, much to the disappointment of his family, colleagues and friend – the only exception being a rare woman named Helene Bresslau, whom he eventually married. A determined Schweitzer re-entered the University of Strasbourg in 1905 at the age of 30, funding his medical education with fees from concert performances and lectures. Eight years later, he graduated with specialisations in tropical medicine and surgery. Incredibly, the Paris Missionary Society initially rejected his application to join its programme in Africa, fearing that other ‘liberals and radicals’ would follow suit. However, the Schweitzers agreed to raise their own funds to cover the first two years of expenses, which caused the Paris Missionary Society to relent. In March 1913, Dr and Mrs Schweitzer left for Africa to build a hospital at Lambaréné in the French Congo, and according to historical records, the work had started in a modified chicken coop.
Schweitzer’s arrival in Africa was beset with challenges. Within a year, World War I broke out, and being German citizens, the Schweitzers were considered enemies of France. In 1917, they were interned as prisoners of war, first in the Pyrenees, then in a former mental institution at Saint Remy, where Vincent van Gogh was confined during his last months of life. Upon an early release, the Schweitzers returned to Europe and remained there for the next six years. During that time, Dr Schweitzer maintained his medical skills as well as his pastoral and musical interests, writing several texts, including On the Edge of the Primeval Forest, The Decay and Restoration of Civilization, Civilization and Ethics, and Christianity and the Religions of the World. Schweitzer finally returned to Lambaréné in 1924 and remained there for the rest of his life. Unfortunately, his wife Helene could not remain by his side, as she had contracted tuberculosis during their earlier stay at Lambaréné, and was not well enough to withstand the rigorous living conditions in the jungles of Africa. It was a difficult separation for the family, and Schweitzer had to make do with letters and infrequent visits. In due course, their daughter Rhena moved to Africa to work with her father and eventually took charge of the mission.
While being transported upstream on the Ogowe River from Lambaréné, Schweitzer honed his philosophy of ‘reverence for life’. He reasoned that the morality of man should extend to the entire creation of the universe and that relationships should be both deepened and widened, with each person acting in accordance with his beliefs, as he himself had done. Schweitzer also believed that all should live a portion of their lives for others. His philosophy embraced not only humans but also all living creatures, as was demonstrated by the multitude of animals that populated the hospital grounds.