The Struggle to Find Life's Meaning

What would you do in the midst of a herd of hippopotami? If you're Albert Schweitzer, you suddenly realize what it all means

BY: Dr. Albert Schweitzer

 
Albert Schweitzer was a French musician, composer, theologian and medical missionary. His medical work in Africa made a profound difference in thousands of lives; in 1952, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. One week before his death, Schweitzer wrote this essay detailing his personal quest for life's purpose.

It was the dry season in usually wet equatorial Africa and slowly we crept upstream, laboriously feeling for the channels between the sandbanks of the Ogoone River.

Lost in thought I sat on the deck of the barge, struggling to find the elementary and universal conception of the ethical which I had not discovered in any philosophy. Sheet after sheet I covered with disconnected sentences, merely to keep myself concentrated on the problem.

Late on the third day, at the very moment when at sunset we were making our way through a herd of hippopotamuses, there flashed upon my mind, unforeseen and unsought: ethics is nothing else than reverence for life. Reverence for life affords me my fundamental principal of morality, namely, that good consists in maintaining, assisting and enhancing life, and that to destroy, to harm or to hinder life is evil.

I live my life in God, in the mysterious ethical divine personality which I cannot discover in the world, but only experience in myself as a mysterious impulse.

The idea that men should ever be favored by being free from the responsibilities of self-sacrifice as men for men is foreign to the ethic of reverence for life. It requires that we should all live as men for men. Therefore, search and see if there is not some place where you may invest your humanity.

As long ago as my student days, it struck me as incomprehensible that I should be allowed to live such a happy life while I saw so many people around me wrestling with care and suffering.

Out of the depths of my feeling of happiness, there gradually grew up within me and understanding of the saying of Jesus that we must not treat our lives as being for ourselves alone.

While at the University of Strasburg and enjoying the happiness of being able to study, and even to produce some results in science and art, I could not help thinking of others who were denied that happiness by their material circumstances or their health. Then, one brilliant summer morning during the Whitsuntide holidays, I awoke with the thought that I must not accept this happiness as a matter of course, but must give something in return for it.

That morning, with the birds singing outside, I settled that I would consider myself justified in living until I was 30 for science and art in order to devote myself from that time forward to the direct service of humanity.

As the years have passed, I've found the truth lay hidden for me in Jesus' saying: "Whosoever shall save his life shall lose it, and whosoever shall lose his life for My sake and the Gospels shall save it."

After more than a half-century in Africa, I still remain convinced that truth, love, peaceableness, meekness and kindness are the violence that can master all other violence.

Whatever you have received more than others in health, in talents, in ability, in success, in a pleasant childhood, in harmonious conditions of home life, all this you must not take to yourself as a matter of course. You must pay a price for it. You must render in return an unusually great sacrifice of your life for other life.

Anyone who has recognized that the idea of love is the spiritual beam of light, which reaches us from the infinite, ceases to demand from religion that it offer him complete knowledge of the supernatural. He ponders, instead, on the great questions: What is the meaning of evil in the world; how in God the will-to-create and the will-to-love are one; in what relation the spiritual and material life stand to one another; and in what way our existence is transitory and yet eternal.

But he also is able to leave these questions on one side, however painful it may be to give up all hope of answers to them. In the knowledge of spiritual existence in God through love he possesses the one thing needful. "Love never fails," says St. Paul.

It is this principle of love that we have tried to practice in succoring the people of West Africa. The African sun is shining through the coffee bushes into the dark shed, but we black and white sit side by side and feel that we experience the meaning of the words: "And all ye are brethren."

Would that my generous friends in Europe and the United States could come out here and live through one such hour!

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Related Topics: Holistic Living

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