Schweitzer’s Struggle to Find Life’s Meaning
The following text is from an article attributed to Albert Schweitzer. According to the Editor’s Note, it was written by Albert Schweitzer with the assistance of religion writer Roland Gammon during the week before Schweitzer’s death in September, 1965.
Pieces of it are familiar from Schweitzer’s other writings; it is a summary of Schweitzer’s search for an ethical way of life. The article byline is from Lambarene, Gabon, and is dated September 4, 1965, although it apparently was printed September 7.
My copy is believed to be from the Midland (Michigan) Daily News, although it was copyrighted by the North American Newspaper Alliance. There are also six pictures of Schweitzer printed in the September 7 edition, including the photograph shown on the first page of this web site. Emphasis is in the original.
Schweitzer’s Struggle to Find Life’s Meaning
Doctor Wrote of Search
By Dr. Albert Schweitzer
It was the dry season in usually wet equatorial Africa and slowly we crept upstream, laboriously feeling for the channels between the sandbanks of the Ogoone River.
Lost in thought I sat on the deck of the barge, struggling to find the elementary and universal conception of th ethical which I had not discovered in any philosophy. Sheet after sheet I covered with disconnected sentences, merely to keep myself concentrated on the problem.
Late on the third day, at the very moment when at sunset we were making our way through a herd of hippopotamuses, there flashed upon my mind, unforeseen and unsought: “Reverence for Life.”
The iron door had yielded: The path in the thicket had become visible. Now I had found my way to the idea in which life-affirmation and ethics are contained side by side!
Thus, to me, ethics is nothing else than reverence for life. Reverence for life affords me my fundamental principal of morality, namely, that good consists in maintaining, assisting and enhancing life, and that to destroy, to harm or to hinder life is evil.
Affirmation of the world–that is, affirmation of the will-to-live which appears in phenomenal form all around me–is only possible for me in that I give myself out for other life. Without understanding the meaning of the world, I act from an inner necessity of my being so as to create values and to live ethically.
For in life-affirmation and in ethics, I fulfill the will of the universal will-to-live which reveal itself to me.
I live my life in God, in the mysterious ethical divine personality which I cannot discover in the world, but only experience in myself as a mysterious impulse.
The idea that men should ever be favored by being free from the responsibilities of self-sacrifice as men for men is foreign to the ethic of reverence for life. It requires that in some way or other and in something or other we should all live as men for men. Therefore, search and see if there is not some place where you may invest your humanity.
From my childhood up, for example, I was troubled about my right to happiness as a matter of course and about the pain which prevails in the world around me.
As long ago as my student days, it struck me as incomprehensible that I should be allowed to live such a happy life while I saw so many people around me wrestling with care and suffering.
Out of the depths of my feeling of happiness, there gradually grew up within me and understanding of the saying of Jesus that we must not treat our lives as being for ourselves alone.
While at the University of Strasburg and enjoying the happiness of being able to study, and even to produce some results in science and art, I could not help thinking of others who were denied that happiness by their material circumstances or their health.
Then, one brilliant summer morning during the Whitsuntide holidays, I awoke with the thought that I must not accept this happiness as a matter of course, but must give something in return for it.
That morning, with the birds singing outside, I settled that I would consider myself justified in living until I was 30 for science and art in order to devote myself from that time forward to the direct service of humanity.
[I had already tried many times to find the meaning that] lay hidden for me in Jesus’ saying: “Whosoever shall save his life shall lose it, and whosoever shall lose his life for My sake and the Gospels shall save it.”
After more than a half-century in Africa, I still remain convinced that truth, love, peaceableness, meekness and kindness are the violence that can master all other violence.
Whatever you have received more than others in health, in talents, in ability, in success, in a pleasant childhood, in harmonious conditions of home life, all this you must not take to yourself as a matter of course.
You must pay a price for it. You must render in return an unusually great sacrifice of your life for other life.
When I am asked which modern thinkers influenced my life and philosophy, I invariably name two–the great German author Goethe and the selfless Hindu saint Mohandas Gandhi.
Goethe’s message to the men of today is the same as to the men of his time and to the men of all times: “Strive for true humanity! Become a man who is true to his inner nature, a man whose deed is in tune with his character.”
Likewise, Gandhi, who was the most Christian Hindu of the century, once acknowledged that he got the idea of “ahimsa” or nonviolence from the Commandments of Jesus: “But I say unto you that ye resist not evil,” and “love your enemies…pray for them who despitefully use you and persecute your, that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.” In both, the ethic of inner perfection is governed by the principle of love.
Anyone who has recognized that the idea of love is the spiritual beam of light, which reaches us from the infinite, ceases to demand from religion that it offer him complete knowledge of the supernatural.
He ponders, instead, on the great questions: What is the meaning of evil in the world; how in God the will-to-create and the will-to-love are one; in what relation the spiritual and material life stand to one another; and in what way our existence is transitory and yet eternal.
But he also is able to leave these questions on one side, however painful it may be to give up all hope of answers to them. In the knowledge of spiritual existence in God through love he possesses the one thing needful. “Love never faileth,” says St. Paul.
It is this principle of love that we have tried to practice in succoring the Negroes of West Africa.
For example, when some poor moaning creature is brought to me with an inflamed appendix or a strangulated hernia, I lay my hand on his forehead and say to him: “Don’t be afraid! In an hour’s time you shall be put to sleep, and when you wake you won’t feel any more pain.”
When the operation is finished, in the barely lighted dormitory, I watch for the sick man’s awakening. Scarcely has he recovered consciousness when he stares about him and exclaims again and again: “I’ve no more pain! I’ve no more pain!” His hands feels for mine and will not let it go.
I then begin to tell the patient and the others who are in the room that it is the Lord Jesus who has told the doctor and his wife to come to Gabon, and that white people in Europe and America give them the money to live here and cure the sick Negroes. Then I have to answer questions as to who these white people are, where they live, and how they know that the natives suffer so much from sickness.
The African sun is shining through the coffee bushes into the dark shed, but we black and white sit side by side and feel that we experience the meaning of the words: “And all ye are brethren.”
Would that my generous friends in Europe and the United States could come out here and live through one such hour!