Many people go through life feeling that they are owed a living. Others feel, to a greater or lesser extent, that life is a gift for which they should be grateful. To show their gratitude, they give back. They may, for selfless reasons, choose a giving profession such as teaching, social work, or the ministry. They may give of their time by volunteering, or give of their personal wealth - be it great or small - to causes they deem worthy. Some individuals just concentrate on being the best that they can be kind, generous, loyal, and honorable. And then there are the rare individuals that give their lives, not dying as martyrs, but living and giving of all their time, their knowledge, their skill, and their devotion, to the service of mankind. Such a man was Albert Schweitzer. It was he who said.
"You must give some time to your fellow man. Even if it's a little thing, do something for others - something for which you get not pay, but the privilege of doing it."
Schweitzer did much more than give a 'little thing'. He left his comfortable home, and a life that was filled with mounting successes, and the adulation of admirers. He left to establish a hospital on the banks of the Ogawa River in French Equatorial Africa. Nothing could be more unlike the homeland he had left.
Albert Schweitzer was born in 1875 in a small town, in a part of Alsace-Lorraine, that had been, earlier, annexed by the Germans. It is now a part of France. Schweitzer came from a family or musicians, theologians, and teachers. His childhood was a happy one, and, although he showed no early intellectual ability, he did demonstrate exceptional musical talent, starting to play the organ at the age of eight, and mastering it well enough, by the age of nine, to act as substitute church organist.
Schweitzer as a sensitive child and felt compassion for all the suffering around him, not just human suffering. He included in his nightly prayers a wish that "all living creatures" should be protected from evil, and allowed to "sleep in peace".
Although Schweitzer's early interests were in history and natural science, his university years were devoted to music, philosophy, and theology. In 1899, he obtained a Doctorate in Philosophy, and in 1900, a Doctorate in Theology.
In 1896, when Schweitzer was only twenty-one years of age, he gave thought to how he would live his life. He decided that until he was thirty, he would devote his life to music, philosophy, and theology, and the rest of his life he would devote to mankind. And so he did. But first he began to prepare, against the wishes of his family and friends, who feared that he would waste the talent and knowledge he already possessed.
"Anyone who proposes to do good must not expect people to roll stones out of his way, but must accept his lot calmly, if they roll a few more upon it."
When Schweitzer was thirty years old, he resigned his position as principal of the Theological College of St Tomas, and set out to become a physician and surgeon. His ultimate aim was to build a hospital somewhere in Africa.
THE HOSPITAL IN FRENCH EQUATORIAL AFRICA
The seven years Schweitzer spent studying medicine, were not just spent on his studies. He continued to preach sermons almost every Sunday, wrote various books on music and theology, and gave concerts to raise funds for the building and supplying of the hospital.
For the rest of his life, Schweitzer depended for all he needed on funds from royalties on his publications, money earned from organ concerts, and donations from well-wishers.
In 1913, Schweitzer and his young wife, Helene Bresskau, left for French Equatorial Africa. Among the gifts he received at departure was a pedal piano, that played like an organ. The piano was specially built and packed to withstand the heat and dampness of the tropics.
While the clearing of the land and building of the hospital was in progress, Schweitzer dedicated himself to treating the thousands of patients who came to him, walking, being carried, or coming by dugout canoe, for dozens, sometimes hundreds, of miles. These patients suffered from a myriad of conditions and diseases, from wounds to tumors, dysentery, sleeping sickness, malaria, leprosy, flesh-eating diseases, and syphilis. Many needed surgery, which Schweitzer performed under the most primitive conditions, with Helene Bresskau acting as anaethesist.
When WWI came, in 1914, Schweitzer and his wife, who were German citizens, were put under a form of house arrest. Schweitzer continued to treat patients, until he was returned to his homeland in 1917. By this time Schweitzer was exhausted and suffering from severe tropical anaemia. When well again, Schweitzer began to practice medicine, write, and give concerts to raise money for his return to Africa.
In 1924, Schweitzer, loaded with supplies, and accompanied by a new assistant returned to the banks of the Ogowe River, his 'home' in Africa. His wife, in ill health, remained behind, with their daughter.
All the early work done on the hospital was in ruins, rotting and decayed. Everything had to be started from scratch. Although Schweitzer resumed treating patients, who waited, uncomplaining, in long lines, he also supervised all aspects of the building process. Much of the work done around the hospital was soon to be performed by patients, former patients, and their families. Whenever Dr Schweitzer had time, often deep into the night, he continued to write, volume after volume, based on his knowledge, and his thought. This not only brought him peace, and pleasure, it brought him funds, much needed for the continued success of his work.
THE HOSPITAL COMMUNITY
Because Schweitzer encouraged patients to bring relatives with them to the hospital to help with their care, the hospital became, not just a single building, but a village, complete with children.
Soon there would be an operating theater, a separate village for the lepers, classes for their children, a garden, and housing for the medical help that soon arrived. Those who came to work at the hospital were only paid a pittance. They came to give, not to earn.
Schweitzer not only treated human patients. He cared for animals as well, all that were wounded or needed attention. As he ate, he dropped crumbs around him to feed the tiny creatures, the insects, who were at his feet.
"Until he extends his circle of compassion to include all living things, man will not himself find peace."
When Dr. Schweitzer was not tending to patients, he was writing or playing on his piano/organ.
DR ALBERT SCHWEITZER
In 1952, Albert Schweitzer receive the Nobel Peace Prize. None could have been more worthy.
Schweitzer was a brilliant, gifted human being. He was not only a great doctor. He was also a great musician, a great theologan, a great philosopher, and a great scholar. But most of all he was a great humanitarian. He saw the world, in all its cruelty, decadence, and evil. But he had hope for a better world.
"..............my knowledge is pessimistic, but my willing and hoping are optimistic."
Much is written about Schweitzer's accomplishments, but to me his greatest accomplishment was what he achieved, quietly, and modestly, in rumpled clothing, on the banks of the Ogowe river in French Equatorial Africa.
"Constant kindness can accomplish much. As the sun melts the ice, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust, and hostility to evaporate."
Albert Schweitzer died in 1965, in his hospital in Lambarene hospital. He is buried nearby, and his grave is marked only by the cross he made himself.