Albert Schweitzer in his autobiography Out of My Life and Thought (translated by A. B. Lemke) writes (in Chap. 9, "I Resolve to Become a Jungle Doctor") about his decision:
Long ago in my student days I had thought about it. It struck me as inconceivable that I should be allowed to lead such a happy life while I saw so many people around me struggling with sorrow and suffering. Even at school I had felt stirred whenever I caught a glimpse of the miserable home surroundings of some of my classmates and compared them with the ideal conditions in which we children of the parsonage at Günsbach had lived. At the university, enjoying the good fortune of studying and even getting some results in scholarship and the arts, I could not help but think continually of others who were denied that good fortune by their material circumstances or their health.
One brilliant summer morning at Günsbach, during the Whitsuntide holidays --- it was in 1896 --- as I awoke, the thought came to me that I must not accept this good fortune as a matter of course, but must give something in return.
While outside the birds sang I reflected on this thought, and before I had gotten up I came to the conclusion that until I was thirty I could consider myself justified in devoting myself to scholarship and the arts, but after that I would devote myself directly to serving humanity. ... What the character of my future activities would be was not yet clear to me. I left it to chance to guide me. Only one thing was certain, that it must be direct human service, however inconspicuous its sphere.
Schweitzer explored working with the homeless, with orphans or neglected children, and with former criminals --- but was frustrated by the impossibility of doing much outside official channels and existing organizations. He was driven by his personal religion (Christianity) and philosophy to serve as an individual. When he discovered the desperate need for medical care in the Congo, he told his friends and relatives that he was abandoning his career as a concert musician and theologian to become a physician. They were dumbfounded and tried to dissuade him. Schweitzer comments, tongue in cheek, that "The attitude of people who did not try to explore my feelings, but regarded me as a precocious young man not quite right in the head and treated me with correspondingly affectionate ridicule, represented a real kindness."
Albert Schweitzer then gets to the core of the matter: Who should make such personal sacrifices?
As a man of independent action, I have since that time been approached for my opinion and advice by many people who wanted to risk a similar venture. Only in comparatively few cases have I taken the responsibility of giving them encouragement. I often had to recognize that the need 'to do something special' was born of a restless spirit. Such people wanted to dedicate themselves to larger tasks because those that lay nearest did not satisfy them. Often, too, it was evident that they were motivated by quite secondary considerations. Only a person who finds value in any kind of activity and who gives of himself with a full sense of service has the right to choose an exceptional task instead of following a common path. Only a person who feels his preference to be a matter of course, not something out of the ordinary, and who has no thought of heroism but only of a duty undertaken with sober enthusiasm, is capable of becoming the sort of spiritual pioneer the world needs. There are no heroes of action --- only heroes of renunciation and suffering. Of these there are plenty. But few of them are known, and even they not to the crowd, but to the few.
Schweitzer goes on to explain that not many people can afford to step away from their immediate responsibilities to perform independent personal service. Those who can "... must accept their good fortune in a spirit of humility. They must often think of those who, though equally willing and capable, were not in a position to do the same."
And for we who must stay behind? For us, he echoes and expands some of the thoughts voiced by George Elliot in the closing pages of her novel Middlemarch. (see ^zhurnal 21 May 1999, RememberMe) Albert Schweitzer counsels:
Of all the will toward the ideal in mankind only a small part can manifest itself in public action. All the rest of this force must be content with small and obscure deeds. The sum of these, however, is a thousand times stronger than the acts of those who receive wide public recognition. The latter, compared to the former, are like the foam on the waves of a deep ocean.
The hidden forces of goodness are alive in those who serve humanity as a secondary pursuit, those who cannot devote their full life to it. The lot of most people is to have a job, to earn their living, and to assume for themselves a place in society through some kind of nonfulfilling labor. They can give little or nothing of their human qualities. The problems arising from progressive specialization and mechanization of labor can only be partly resolved through the concessions society is willing to make in its economic planning. It is always essential that the individuals themselves not suffer their fate passively, but expend all their energies in affirming their own humanity through some spiritual engagement, even if the conditions are unfavorable.
One can save one's human life, along with one's professional existence, if one seizes every opportunity, however unassuming, to act humanely toward those who need another human being. In this way we serve both the spiritual and the good. Nothing can keep us from this second job of direct human service. So many opportunities are missed because we let them pass by.
Everyone in his own environment must strive to practice true humanity toward others. The future of the world depends on it.
Sunday, July 23, 2000 at 16:06:38 (EDT) = Datetag20000723