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“He yearned to express his life in a simple way that was consistent with what he believed to be the essential teaching of Jesus: to love.”








Home » Lives of Spiritual Unfolding » Albert Schweitzer

Reverence for Life

Young Albert's awareness of his irresistible impulse to assert power over his pet dog also caused him to suffer, and later prevented him from enjoying trained animal acts in the circus because of the necessary suffering the training entailed. Once when he and a friend were hunting and preparing to shoot at a flock of birds, Albert responded to a sudden urge and frightened the birds away so that they would be spared any suffering. This incident was important not only because he awakened to the understanding that hunting and fishing for sport were cruel and unnecessary, but because he realized the need to be free of the fear of others, to be unafraid of being laughed at by friends. He worked to overcome his desire to please others and follow their opinions. Instead, he transcended his shyness and became in fact rather argumentative, searching passionately for truth by thinking things through clearly and logically.

His independent approach to truth led him into conflicts. He had difficulties in his confirmation class because he was troubled by the literal truth of the Bible. Having his own spiritual ideas, he was unable to accept many of the dogmatic interpretations that he was taught. Schweitzer's calling was to eventually leave the realm of discussion and persuasion and to make his life his argument. His work for humanity was to become the fullest expression of his inner yearnings.

This calling came to him one beautiful spring morning as he awoke. He was 21 years old and at home with his family on vacation from the university. Reflecting on his life, he realized how ideal it was. Living in an atmosphere of love and material comfort, he had wonderful opportunities to develop himself in every way. His life was one of peace and happiness. But, as a boy he had always been bothered by the fact that his life had been blessed by such goodness while many others suffered. It upset him to know that he had better food at home than his classmates did. On one occasion, he even refused to wear a new coat that had been given to him because his friends could not afford such a fine one. By not wanting to appear privileged in front of his friends, he participated in their poverty in a quiet and humble way. Schweitzer knew that he could not accept his happiness as a matter of course. He owed something in return.

He decided that fine spring morning to continue on in his academic and musical interests until he reached the age of thirty, at which time he would dedicate his life to some form of direct service to humanity. He later explained that "whoever is spared personal pain must feel himself called to help in diminishing the pain of others."

Schweitzer began his search for the way in which he could best serve humanity by becoming involved with various organizations and social projects, including work with abandoned and neglected children, tramps and discharged prisoners, and poor families living in slums. After each of these efforts, the feeling persisted that he needed to find a way to do his work of service in a more direct, personal, and independent way, outside of organizations. He benefitted from working with these groups, however, in that he was forced to appeal for donations by going door to door. At first, he had great difficulties in doing this because of his shyness. But, he persevered and eventually overcame his fears. This experience later proved valuable when he sought support for his own humanitarian projects.

Just before his thirtieth birthday, Schweitzer read in a magazine published by the Paris Missionary Society an appeal for doctors to serve in a Congo mission. This immediately attracted him, and he soon decided to study for the degree of Doctor of Medicine so as to offer services to the Africans. He felt Africa was a particularly significant place to work because of the need to make atonement for European colonialism and the exploitation of Africa and its people.

After completing several years of strenuous and difficult studies, Schweitzer offered himself as a medical doctor to the Paris Missionary Society. But because his previous writings, especially his study of Jesus from a psychological and historical perspective, were perceived by the Society as unorthodox and heretical, his offer was rejected. He persisted, though, by convincing the members that he was offering himself only as a physician and by pledging not to preach heresy. He also agreed to be financially responsible for the maintenance of his own mission. This he was to do for many years by using the proceeds from organ recitals which he gave throughout Europe.

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