The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

CLASSIC DISPLACED WRITING: Albert Schweitzer, early humanitarian & medic without borders

Fifty years ago, “Albert Schweitzer” was a household name. Nowadays it is hard to find anyone who knows who he is. But given our current theme of looking at those who’ve displaced themselves on behalf of humanitarian causes, today I would like to resurrect this great man for the purpose of honoring him with a membership in our Displaced Hall of Fame.

Were he still alive, Schweitzer, a brilliant theologian and musical genius who received the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize for his philosophy known as Reverence for Life, might not be all that flattered.

Then again, considering that he chose to spend much of his time living simply and without pretension in Africa, is it too far fetched to think he’d “get” what the Displaced Nation is all about? He might even have a good wheeze at learning of his elevated status among our citizenry…

A displaced early life

Schweitzer was born in 1875 in Alsace, which at that time belonged to the German Reich (it would change hands four times between France and Germany over the next 75 years).

According to Professor J. Rufus Fears who has lectured on Schweitzer for the Teaching Company:

Alsatians are their own people — neither French nor German, though they like to say they eat as much as the Germans and as well as the French.

Did being born an Alsatian give Schweitzer a head start on leading a displaced life? It’s tempting to think so. Curiously, although he spoke two languages — actually, three: Alsatian (a dialect of German), German and French — he professed not to believe that anyone was ever truly bilingual. He maintained that a person’s true native tongue could be discovered by asking:

What language do you count your change in when you give someone a dollar bill?

A displaced career

For our ceremony inducting Schweitzer into the Displaced Hall of Fame, we would do well to choose one of Bach’s organ works. While still in his twenties, Schweitzer distinguished himself not only in his chosen field of theology, but also as an organist and musicologist who specialized in Bach.

He wrote two early works that established his reputation in both of these fields: The Quest for the Historical Jesus (German, 1906; English translation, 1910), arguing that Jesus was human, not divine; and J.S. Bach (enlarged German edition 1908; English translation, 1911), a study of the life and art of Johann Sebastian Bach.

As if being an accomplished theologian and notable organist weren’t displaced enough, while still in his twenties, Schweitzer decided he would go out into the world and devote his life to humanity rather than remaining locked up in the cloisters of academe.

Upon turning 30, he shocked and horrified his parents and friends by declaring his intention to become a medical student in preparation for the life of a physician in French Equatorial Africa.

While studying medicine, he married Helene Bresslau, who although a scholar herself, became a trained nurse in order to share her husband’s life in Africa.

In 1913 the couple set sail from Bordeaux for what today is Lambaréné, Gabon.

The conditions the Schweitzers faced were desolate in the extreme. The climate — characterized by fiercely hot days, clammy nights and seasonal torrents of rain — was appalling. Besides the usual diseases, the natives were suffering from leprosy, dysentery, elephantiasis, sleeping sickness, malaria, yellow fever and animal wounds.

But the couple persisted through thick and thin (including a period of being interned during World War I), setting out to build a hospital on the grounds of the Lambaréné station of the Paris Missionary Society (they would later move the hospital to an even more remote spot).

Eventually, Schweitzer’s wife went back to Europe to raise their daughter, while Schweitzer himself carried on working in, and on behalf of, this remarkable medical facility until his own death in 1965. By then the compound had grown to more than 70 buildings, 350 beds and a leper village of 200, and the hospital was staffed by 3 unpaid physicians, 7 nurses and 13 volunteer helpers.

(It still exists today as the Albert Schweitzer Hospital, one of the leading research centers in sub-Saharan Africa training African doctors in the treatment of diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.)

Schweitzer, who passed away in the hospital itself, was buried next to the Ogooué River in a ceremony attended by hospital workers, lepers, cripples and other patients.

An epiphany of hippopotaman proportions

Schweitzer considered his work as a medical missionary in Africa to be a small recompense for the injustices committed by the African Continent’s European colonizers. In a sermon preached in 1905, he proclaimed:

Oh, this “noble” culture of ours! It speaks so piously of human dignity and human rights and then disregards this dignity and these rights of countless millions and treads them underfoot, only because they live overseas or because their skins are of different color or because they cannot help themselves.

By the time he dedicated his life to serving the natives of Africa, Schweitzer could no longer make the intellectual case for Jesus’s divinity. The French had recruited him to work in their mission as a physician not a pastor (somehow a Lutheran who didn’t believe in Christ was just a little too displaced!). Yet Schweitzer remained deeply spiritual. He wanted to find a philosophy that would persuade others to displace themselves to the most desolate places on earth, just as he had done — separate and apart from a proselytizing mission.

While on a boat trip on the Ogooué, Schweitzer noticed a herd of hippopotamuses swimming in the water, and thought to himself: what purpose does the hippo serve? He decided that the spirit of the universe had made this creature — and that this was reason enough to treat it with respect.

From that point on, he promoted the idea that man, in his quest for dominance, should never forget the need to show reverence and awe for all living creatures.

For Schweitzer, such a belief should suffice as motivation to reach out and help others who are less fortunate than oneself. You can almost sense his relief at discovering this philosophy from the epilogue he attached to his major autobiographical volume, Out of My Life and Thought:

Two observations have cast their shadows over my life. One is the realization that the world is inexplicably mysterious and full of suffering, the other that I have been born in a period of spiritual decline for mankind.

I myself found the basis and the direction for my life at the moment I discovered the principle of Reverence for Life, which contains life’s ethical affirmation.

His Reverence of Life philosophy further led him to warn against man destroying animals (what we know today as “animal rights”) as well as his environment — he was an early environmentalist, who predicted that man “will end by destroying the Earth” (Rachel Carson dedicated Silent Spring to him).

Schweitzer tried to put these principles in practice in all sorts of ways, but the two examples I like best are his refusal to teach his pet parrot how to talk (talking would lower its dignity), and his decline of an offer by a foundation to replace his dug-out canoe with a motorboat for fear it would pollute the Ogooué River.

Schweitzer’s relevance for today’s global nomads

In his lecture on Albert Schweitzer, Professor Fears insists that this early humanitarian still speaks to us. I agree and would add that he positively shouts to those of us who’ve chosen to live much of our lives abroad. For a start, we can find inspiration in his refusal to follow a conventional career path (a quality that, by the way, drove the bureaucrats in charge of French Equatorial Africa crazy).

But the really impressive thing about Schweitzer, of course, is his unconquerable spirit, his desire to do good. Despite living through two world wars, he carried on believing in mankind’s potential to treat life, in all its forms, with the reverence it deserves.

Even after World War II, when Albert Einstein called on him to speak out against the atom bomb, he did so despite his better instinct to get involved in politics (and suffered the fall-out of having funds withdrawn from his hospital when the FBI and CIA began persecuting him for his anti-nuclear-arms-race position).

The way I see it, we expats and “internationals” are perfectly positioned to understand where Schweitzer was coming from. Our travels have taught us that life, whether human or animal, deserves respect no matter where one is on the globe.

But how do we share this knowledge? What do we actually do with it?

As mentioned in my post on Richard Branson at the start of November, for some of us it’s challenge enough to cultivate our own gardens and hope that in doing so, some of our attitudes will rub off on others.

But Schweitzer, whom Fears calls a “living testimony to goodness,” clearly believed in the need to do more. And after a month of celebrating those who’ve done more — see our profiles of Adria Schmidt, Jennifer Lentfer, Matt Collin, and Vilma Ilic — I’m prepared to concede he is right.

To give the redoubtable Albert Schweitzer the final word:

I have always held firmly to the thought that each one of us can do a little to bring some portion of misery to an end.

STAY TUNED for Monday’s reflections on global philanthropy by third-culture-kid columnist Charlotte Day.

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