My interest in the life and thought of Albert Schweitzer as a guiding principle came via a circuitous route. For some time I had been aware of considerable social and economic change and turmoil in the world. It seemed to me that we, as a society, were losing what I call “mutual regard,” i.e., a respect for the dignity of the other in human relationships.
Over the past forty years I have lived in communities (Cicero, Harvey, and Chicago) riddled with social problems, the increase of which impacted my husband (a city pastor) and me in the numbers of people seeking refuge, food, clothing, money, and counsel. Our lives were touched increasingly by drug and alcohol addiction, divorce and runaway children, attempted suicide and homicide, and children who seemingly had no one to care for or about them. Had two World Wars, Korea, and Viet Nam given us psychological permission to dismiss our responsibility and respect for others as well as excuse ourselves from the yardsticks of civilized behavior, which include charity, justice, dignity, compassion, and kindness toward others?
In my work as the business manager of a cardio thoracic surgery practice I had an opportunity to speak with countless patients who lacked funds, jobs, and family. As an active layperson I listened to parishioners express their attitudes of ambivalence toward life, mistrust of employers, racism toward minorities, and disillusionment with the church. It all served to confirm my sense that something had gone haywire in our society.
It was out of these concerns that I enrolled in a Master’s program at Loyola University (then Mundelein College)and was stimulated by a course entitled “Fate of the Earth and Human Responsibility,” which was team taught by a biologist and a religion professor. I became hooked on the concept of Homo duplex and the ideas surrounding humanity’s two-sided nature which include flesh and spirit, God and man, good and evil.
At this same time, I had the opportunity to visit Hiroshima and witness films taken first-hand on the ground during the dropping of the A-bomb. Nothing in my past prepared me for what I saw. Then I traveled to Israel to visit Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Museum) and the Children’s Memorial. I cannot erase the unthinkable images from my mind. Finally, I traveled to Oslo, Norway to visit the Resistance Museum and see the devastation of WWII there. Pain, anguish, and suffering were the common denominators.
My initial questions and travels then took me into independent studies of evil, ethics, Schweitzer, and the biological underpinnings of reverence for life as a viable ethic. It was because of what I saw as the lack of reverence for life in our society and the world as witnessed by world wars (declared or undeclared) and Hitler’s role in the devastation of Europe that I began searching for someone who might have been working on the side of Good for humanity during this period of history.
I do not think it was accidental that Albert Schweitzer’s name surfaced in my mind. I am inclined to consider it a Providential guiding of the Spirit to a source that could help me sift through these knotty problems of the human condition as well as provide a model of a fully authentic and godly life. It was not easy to locate his out-of-print books, but finally through the Albert Schweitzer International Fellowship located at the United Nations in New York I was able to get The Philosophy of Civilization. I was on my way now and made connections with other organizations to receive his books translated to English. I could feel myself getting more and more caught up in the person of Albert Schweitzer and intrigued by his many facets—philosopher, theologian, musician, and physician.
Dr. Schweitzer himself had a great concern for humanity that took him on a spiritual quest touching the areas of theology, philosophy, music, medicine, and finally peace advocacy. However, it was the suffering in the world, which he thought was universal to humankind, that touched him deeply. His decision to serve humanity in a remote and underserved area of the world (Lambaréné (Gabon), Africa) as a physician and remain therefor 52 years still captures the imagination of the young medical students at Harvard Medical School and the Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti.
Dr. Schweitzer uses the term noblesse oblige to express his idea that “we must not accept what comes to us in our life by way of good luck as a matter of course, but make a sacrifice of thanksgiving for it by some act of help or service.” It seems to imply that every human being who finds himself endowed with a natural advantage by birth or circumstance should feel some obligation to assist humanity in whatever way his talent or ability allows.
In his theological writings, Schweitzer espouses a “practical eschatology” in which the Kingdom of God can be accomplished by duty and responsible action, service to others, and an imitation of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ which are ultimately love centered toward God and one’s neighbor. He is less concerned with fulfilling the letter of the Law than the life-giving spirit of the Gospel.
When I attended the First International Albert Schweitzer Colloquium at the United Nations in August, 1990, and the Physicians For Social Responsibility Thirtieth Anniversary Meeting in Atlanta in March, 1991, I had the privilege of personal meetings with Dr. Schweitzer’s daughter, Mrs. Rhena Schweitzer Miller, who for some years managed her father’s hospital laboratory in Lambaréné. I told her of my disappointment in being unable to visit his hospital after becoming ill and having to cancel the long trip.
Mrs. Miller told me her father’s philosophy was that Lambaréné can exist for us wherever we are and wherever there are people suffering and in need of our help. Reverence for Life as an ethic turns not on just noblesse oblige, duty, integrity, or a moral imperative but on love, care, concern, stewardship, and service for others. It is our feeling of compassion for those suffering physically, mentally,or emotionally. Reverence for Life captures my imagination in a way that my unconscious is tapped and I see a rich reservoir of potential within each person for healing and growth. This became the way I viewed each patient coming for surgical intervention.
In retirement I wondered how I might use my business background as well as my degrees from Loyola’s Liberal Arts program and the Institute of Pastoral Studies. Like the Providential guidance to find Dr. Schweitzer’s work, I was guided to the Henderson County Free Medical Clinic. The clinic is staffed by volunteer doctors,nurses, physical therapists, social workers and specialists who treat the uninsured and underinsured low-income population of Henderson County in an effort to alleviate pain and suffering. They have diagnosed and treated everything from colds to cancer with funds provided by citizens of this county. While I do not have medical skills, I can offer what I know best, which is to keep things running smoothly by handling administrative and financial matters behind the scenes.
Yes, we are one Body with many parts. As we move through this journey called Life, we are given opportunities to serve in whatever ways appeal to us or we have the talent/skills for. Listen for the Spirit. A blessing awaits.
I am respectful of the deep thinking and time Dr. Schweitzer devoted to serving humanity and showing the way—the way really being the ethics of Jesus—to love God and our neighbor above all else.