Working with Dr. Schweitzer

Chapter 14. Reverence for Life

By Louise Jilek-Aall, M.D.
The ethic of Reverence for Life is the ethic of Love widened into universality. It is the ethic of Jesus, now recognized as a necessity of thought.

(Albert Schweitzer, My Life and Thought p. 270)

In the latter part of his life, Albert Schweitzer was plagued with a never-ending problem: how to keep up with the increasing amount of mail that found its way to Lambaréné. Unopened letters followed him everywhere. When he traveled he used to take along a bagful, in the hope of finding time to answer some. But it was in vain and heaps of mail piled up in his room-until someone suggested that members of his staff might help him out. Dr. Schweitzer's sense of personal obligation to those who turned to him must have made it difficult for him to accept such a solution, but when I worked in Lambaréné it had become a well-established procedure.

When the weekly bag of mail arrived, Mlle Mathilde decided which letters Dr. Schweitzer would not have to answer personally and these were distributed among volunteers according to language and country of origin. Thus it fell to me to answer letters from the Scandinavian countries. Since I am an ardent letter writer, I enjoyed the challenge.

People from all walks of life, most of whom could never make it to Lambaréné, wrote to Albert Schweitzer-and here I was in the middle of it all. I could choose from the bounty around me whatever I thought would interest a particular letter writer. In time, I extended my correspondence to include letters from English- and German-speaking countries as well.

My enthusiasm for this task grew when I discovered that it gave me frequent opportunities to talk with Dr. Schweitzer in person. Mlle Mathilde, pleased to see the heap of unanswered letters dwindle, was more than willing to let me in when I explained that I needed his opinion regarding a particular question in one of the letters. Dr. Schweitzer did not seem to mind these interruptions. If I had not visited him for some time, he would jokingly ask in passing: “Don't you have a letter you'd better discuss with me?”

Albert Schweitzer was very careful not to favor anyone who worked with him. We all accepted that a few older colleagues and friends were special to him, but everybody else was treated equally. Maybe there was something in the way he treated us which made each of us feel very special to him; or he did indeed have a liking for me. I will never know. The fact was that I had come to work for him unexpectedly at a time of crisis. I was also his youngest assistant, although I probably had moved around in Africa more than most of the physicians working in Lambaréné at that time. Maybe I won his confidence because I kept our encounters strictly private and never tried to obtain privileges for my daily work. The only persons who knew about my frequent visits were nurse Ali and old Mlle Mathilde.

I never did overcome my shyness in Dr. Schweitzer's presence and preferred to remain on the periphery when crowds gathered around him. From a distance I sensed, more than I saw, the uneasiness he felt when tourists asked him personal questions or eagerly poked their cameras into his face. Dr. Schweitzer, who was used to giving his full attention to others, did not like to have it turned on himself. Personal questions seemed to catch him unprepared; they surprised and embarrassed him. Those of us who were able to catch a glimpse of the living person behind the friendly, or sometimes gruff face, discovered a shy and humble human being who simply did not find it worthwhile to be the focus of attention.

It was fascinating to see how the old doctor devoted himself to any person who needed his help. In self-forgetting concentration, he would size up the person in front of him, so that he could adjust to that person's level of comprehension. This is a task that demands great mental effort. No wonder that at times he preferred the undemanding company of his pet animals or the tranquility of his private quarters. Having seen the strained expression on his face when he turned away from curious visitors, I vowed that I would never willfully inconvenience him. Dr. Schweitzer seemed to appreciate this attitude, which made it possible for him to feel at ease in my company.

Sometimes when I told him about my experiences as bush doctor in East Africa, he would burst out laughing and the loud sound would vibrate in the little room. I loved that laughter and tried to provoke it with all sorts of stories. Sometimes, however, the old man would let out a big yawn. Then I would get up all flustered and mutter an excuse for staying too long. But just as surely, he would gently push me down on the chair again, reminding me that he was the one to decide when I was to leave.

“It is strange,” he once smilingly remarked, “there is something about you that makes me drowsy.”

That seemed a dubious compliment and made me wonder whether I was a bore. But Dr. Schweitzer did not appear bored. After a while in this relaxed atmosphere, he was refreshed and his mind became intensely active.

Leaving off from the topic of our conversation, he would often embark upon a philosophical monologue. It was not always easy for me to follow his thoughts.

“You don't talk about the fears you must have experienced while working in the field,” Dr. Schweitzer commented one evening. “Were you never afraid in the bush by yourself?”

The question took me by surprise. I had, indeed, often been scared, but fear was something I did not like to admit.

“I am not afraid of death, so why else should I have been afraid?” I quickly retorted. But it sounded hollow and I blushed as soon as it was said.

Dr. Schweitzer looked thoughtfully at me for a long time. When he finally spoke, his voice was low, nearly hesitant: “Afraid of hurting someone's feelings, afraid of misunderstanding a person, of unwittingly causing harm; afraid of not being able to pay back a debt; afraid of forgetting a promise, of not fulfilling a responsibility; afraid of not living up to a friend's expectations; afraid of failing a patient....”

“That is a different kind of fear,” I protested. But Dr. Schweitzer shook his head, while sinking deeper into the chair, as if burdened by his own thoughts.

“The anxiety I am talking about has to do with personal guilt. A conscientious human being, especially a physician, ought to feel guilty, don't you know that?”

It sounded scornful and I did not find a reply.

“A guilty conscience is necessary to keep the mind alert,” Dr. Schweitzer continued; “yes I dare say that one is always guilty, for by making the decision to save a life, one's action will often hurt other lives. The debts one heaps upon oneself by one's actions, and especially through one's mistakes, are hard to pay back and create the feeling of guilt. Therefore, one cannot be indifferent to the results of one's actions. Only nature is indifferent. Others say nature is cruel, but I say no, nature is indifferent. But I refuse to be part of that indifference.”

There was a long silence. When he began to speak again, he appeared oblivious to my presence.

“In my younger days, when I traveled up and down the Ogowe River, I would sit for hours, looking at the tropical forest on either side of the river banks. The ever-changing sight of the lush vegetation oppressed me as I perceived how plants and trees choke and crush each other to reach the sun.

“‘Who cares?’ I once thought in a gloomy mood, ‘whether that tree over there will grow up or whether it will succumb and become rotting underbrush; it just happens. Some die that others might live, just as it occurs in the animal world and in our lives too, for that matter. All life wants to survive. All living creatures become part of the powerful interplay of procreation, survival, and death. But do we also have to feel indifferent toward other living beings? Even animals will sometimes give their own life to protect and save the lives of their young.

That kind of self-sacrifice demands our admiration and respect.

“‘Reverence for Life,’ I thought. And suddenly I felt great joy, for this was an answer to the problem of how to deal with the indifference of nature. Reverence for All Life, any kind of life, because the will to live is part of the force that preserves life on earth. This is a distinctly human thought, born out of protest against nature's arbitrariness. It makes man more than just a living being sharing the will to live with all life-it makes him homo sapiens.”

Albert Schweitzer straightened in his chair. “And if man takes another step and fills Reverence for Life with Love and the will to protect other living creatures, then he becomes an ethical human being who, through his action, elevates life onto a higher plane of existence.”

Another pondering silence in which I did not dare to stir.

“Guilt,” Dr. Schweitzer continued with a sigh, “the pain of guilt forces one to reflect, to think to the last consequence what it implies to be a human being among all other beings. Reverence for Life has given me an answer. It is an ethical or moral truth, if you will, but a truth anyway-and that has meant more to me than all the philosophical and religious theories of the whole world.”

Dr. Schweitzer stopped talking, he seemed to have reached a conclusion. How I wished I could have spurred him on! But the 60-odd years of age difference and the gravity of his thoughts intimidated me. I felt I had to change to a lighter topic and looked around for some clue. My eyes caught a beautiful mat of grass hanging on the wall. What an intricate pattern! I made an impulsive gesture toward the mat.

“Who gave it to you?”

The old doctor woke up from his heavy thoughts and followed my finger with his eyes.

“It was made by the wife of one of my patients,” he said with a smile.

“She gave it to me before she left for home, saying, 'all my thankful thoughts are woven into this pattern.' The women around here go far down the river to get the right kind of grass; they take pride in designing the most complicated patterns; but I have not seen another one like this.”

Dr. Schweitzer rose from his chair. “It is getting late; it is time for you to get some rest and I have more work to do.”

As usual, he dismissed me rather briskly. I walked across the dark yard towards the nurses' quarters, half in a daze and feeling somehow let down. I sat for a while, forlorn, in my little room; but then I reached for my worn-out diary and began to write, while I still had the old man's voice in my ears. I wrote for hours into the night, until my eyes were burning from the flickering light of the kerosene lamp and I got so tired I could think no more.

For a few days I went around feeling strangely resentful. I thought I was too young to struggle with life's ultimate questions. I wanted to feel happy and have some fun to counterbalance the strain of work. I tried to joke and laugh with the others as we visited each other in our houses. I thought, 'Later, when I am older and living in a moderate climate, there will be time to take up the philosophy of life again.' But I could not escape. The very life in Lambaréné, the things that happened at work, painful and pleasant, bore witness to the truth of his thoughts.

Sometimes when I needed a break from work, I would go down to the river and look out over the flowing water. Now and then a canoe full of people was passing and I could hear talk and laughter as they were paddling along. A vague feeling of envy crossed my heart. It seemed that life itself was passing me by out there.

‘Parents and children, husbands and wives-they are enjoying each other's company; they seem to be lighthearted and unencumbered,’ I thought.

The beautiful scenery, the cool breeze from the water, together with the silent shifting clouds above, gradually gave me peace of mind. I could then return to my work with newfound strength. As I slowly walked back to the hospital, I would smile to myself, for I knew that in spite of it all, there was no place I would rather be than right here in Lambaréné.

Of the meetings with Dr. Schweitzer that followed, one stands out vividly in my memory. When I visited him on that particular evening, I found the room cluttered with many manuscripts, all in his characteristic handwriting. Obviously he had been hard at work and I hesitated at the door wondering whether I should be better advised to leave again. But Dr. Schweitzer impatiently motioned me to come in. He immediately began to talk with that urgency I had noticed before, as if he felt that time was running out for him.

“We physicians are constantly confronted with people suffering pain,” he began. “Our wish to take away this pain becomes an obsession. Nothing is more rewarding for us than when a patient stops moaning and says, ‘Doctor, the pain is gone; nothing hurts me anymore!’ And yet, it is not always in our power to take away the pain.

“Our remedies sometimes fail, especially in patients with chronic illnesses or in those who are terminally ill. Then we must have the courage to share the pain, the patient with his body and we with our hearts. If we can stand his pain, then our patient can too. Holding together as brothers and sisters, we can help the sufferer to give up the attitude of protesting against fate.

“When giving up his resentment, our patient may gain the insight that struggling against pain will only increase it. When such a person finally bows the head before fate, becomes humble, and listens until reaching utter silence, then it may happen that from the innermost core of his being there emerges a new meaning of his suffering. A truth not known before, which few can express in words, will lend the patient a strength that allows him to rise above pain. We, as physicians, stand in awe when this happens and recognize the essence of true humanness; the triumph of spirit over matter. Then we understand the words from the Sermon on the Mount, ‘elig sind die, die da Leid tragen, denn sie werden getroestet werden.’ (“Blessed are those who endure pain for they shall be comforted”)

“With that in mind, we shall find the strength to go along with our patient and to bring him comfort for the last, difficult stretch of the road. The love and respect we feel for our fellow sufferer is the love of Jesus as I understand Him, and that, for me, is the essence of Christianity.”

Dr. Schweitzer fell silent, and I sat there hoping he would not expect me to say something.

“The insight we gain when we share the brotherhood of those who suffer,” he took up again, “makes strong emotions well up from the heart. With our thinking mind, we recognize that they are pure, have to do with goodness, have worth to themselves; a moral principle that gives us certainty that this truth possesses eternal values all human beings can recognize. Of these, the great spiritual leaders have spoken. Jesus has taught us that the only truth capable of satisfying man's spiritual longing is that of Love and Compassion.”

A sudden sadness showed on his face; he sighed heavily.

“If only the idea of Reverence for Life and the true spirit of Christianity could be merged into one great philosophy, an ethic so simple that everybody could understand it.... It would give birth to a new attitude and my life's work would not have been in vain. Then this world could become a better place to live in.”

The last words were feeble and his voice sad. Tears came to my eyes. Dr. Schweitzer did not look as if he thought his vision would come true, and he seemed at once a very tired old man.

I forgot my shyness and exclaimed: “What you have said and done will not be lost. All of us who know your work carry the seeds of your ideas in our hearts and we will not forget....”

I talked fervently to wipe out the sadness in his eyes.

“Now I understand the fear and guilt I felt when working alone in the bush, because I was afraid and I did feel guilty; but I've been ashamed to admit it. I thought it was weakness and I changed my stories so I would not have to admit it. My stories became like I wanted them to be.”

Dr. Schweitzer had to smile in spite of himself.

“Now you speak honestly,” he said. “Spontaneity is the most appealing form of the spoken word. Remember to stay open and honest if you want to be a healer of men. Truth is the most convincing when it comes forth simply and straightforward. I think the idea of Reverence for Life is a simple idea. It is a workable and realistic way of facing life and gives it meaning and beauty. But I must let you go now, it is late and you have a day full of work ahead of you.”

That sounded more like Albert Schweitzer, the teacher, again. I felt better for it and we left it at that.

A few days later, when I returned to my room after work, I found an oblong parcel lying on my table. Full of curiosity, I unwrapped it. The beautiful mat I had admired in Dr. Schweitzer's room unfolded upon the table! I stared at it for a long time: the work of art of an African woman, expressing her feeling of gratitude to Dr. Schweitzer. Maybe this was a friendly gesture of the same kind from Dr. Schweitzer to me? His gift filled me with joy and pride. When our eyes met over the dinner table that evening, we both smiled with a silent understanding for each other.

The precious mat has always since been hanging in a central place of my home. Each time I look at it I am reminded that I, too, will have to come to grips with the riddle of life one day. It tells me that whatever the answer, Reverence for Life and Compassion will be part of that answer.


Copyright © 1990 Louise Jilek-Aall
Reprinted with permission

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