Remembering Dr. Schweitzer
What lessons can we learn from past Nobel Peace Prize winners?
October 10, 2009
Looking at the long-standing conflicts in several countries around the world, I am reminded of my visit to Lambaréné, in Gabon — the place where the famous Dr. Albert Schweitzer carried out his humanitarian work.
The 1952 Nobel Peace Prize winner saved the lives of thousands of patients with total dedication to their health and well being. He provided a living example of compassion for all of us today.
My visit took me to Cité Soleil, where a community of lepers still lives, created by Schweitzer as a special ward next to the hospital. During my visit, three men were sitting on a bench, one of whom was trying to fix a violin, his hands ravaged by disease. I took out my camera and was ready to take his picture when he told me, "Don't shoot!"
Startled by his reaction, I asked him why he didn't want his picture taken. As he continued working on his violin he told me, "You don't even bother to say hello, you don't ask for our permission and you want to take our picture?" I apologized, greeted him properly and asked his permission for a photograph. He readily agreed.
That man taught me an important lesson. Although my intention had not been to show him any disrespect, that essentially is what I was doing.
I felt I had the right to take his photograph because I thought it was an interesting shot, but I hadn't respected his right to say no. That he was a leper who had probably encountered much disrespect in the past made my insensitivity even worse. The man's assertiveness about his rights and the atmosphere of quiet pride in Cité Soleil, I realized, were no accident.
Dr. Schweitzer was remarkable because of his devotion to the needs of those less fortunate. He left a brilliant professional career as a musician and a theologian to become a physician. He then 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 an irrepressible sense of personal duty.
Once, when looking at a herd of hippos in the Ogowe River close to the hospital, Dr. Schweitzer spoke of 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.
People today speak of a clash of civilizations, when the real clash is the lack of respect for the other, the lack of dialogue, the lack of effort to understand each other. As the American philosopher Sam Keen says in his poem How to Create an Enemy, "…Trace onto the face of the enemy the greed, hatred, carelessness you dare not claim as your own…"
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.
Although the medical work at the hospital continues after his death, his message of peace has been lost in today’s world, ravaged by sinister wars and unnecessary loss of life. Standing in his room and feeling the force of his personality, I thought that later generations have betrayed his legacy of peace.
When we look at the destruction of a country through a war based on false premises, at the decades of conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, at the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, we need to remember Dr. Schweitzer's words in a 1963 letter to President John F. Kennedy.
He wrote that, "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 differently than we do — and 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."
He constantly stressed that the progress of civilization is closely linked to a conception of the importance of life.
People today speak of a clash of civilizations, when the real clash is the lack of respect for the other, the lack of dialogue, the lack of effort to understand each other.
"You don't even bother to say hello, you don't ask for our permission and you want to take our picture?"