Schweitzer's Lesson
Published on Friday, April 21, 2006 by the International Herald Tribune
Schweitzer's Lesson

LAMBARÉNÉ, Gabon -- I had been touring the grounds of Albert Schweitzer's hospital, in Lambaréné, Gabon, where the famous doctor cured thousands of Africans and helped them lead better lives. In Cité Soleil, created as a special ward for lepers next to the hospital, a community of lepers still lives. Three men were sitting on a bench, one of whom was trying to fix a musical instrument, his hands ravaged by disease. I took out my camera and was ready to take his picture when he said, "Don't shoot!"

Startled by his reaction, I asked him why he didn't want a picture taken. As he continued working, he said, "You don't even say hello, you don't ask for our permission and you want to take our picture?" I apologized, greeted him properly and asked his permission for a photograph, to which he readily agreed.

He taught me an important lesson. Although my intention had not been to show him any disrespect, that is what I was essentially doing. I felt I had the right to take his photograph because I thought it was an interesting scene, but I hadn't respected his right to say no. That he was a leper who had probably encountered much disrespect in the past, I realized, made my insensitivity even worse.

The man's assertiveness about his rights and the atmosphere of quiet pride in Cité Soleil, I also realized, were no accident. Dr. Schweitzer was remarkable for his respect for the needs of others, exemplified by his life of service to those less fortunate.

Dr. Schweitzer left a brilliant professional career in Europe as a musician and a theologian to become a physician, moved to Africa with his wife, built a hospital in Lambaréné from what had been a chicken coop, and devoted his life to treating thousands of patients out of an irrepressible sense of personal duty.

His activities earned him the admiration of figures such as Albert Einstein and Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. In 1952 he received the Nobel Peace Prize. The money from the prize went to fund the creation of Cité Soleil.

One day, looking at a herd of hippos in the Ogowe River, close to the hospital, Dr. Schweitzer formed his commitment to the need to revere life: "The greatest evil is to destroy life, to injure life, to repress life that is capable of development."

I couldn't help comparing Dr. Schweitzer's approach to life to what is happening in today's world, when we live in what seems to be a permanent state of war and where the reasons for going to war are becoming more and more irrelevant. We live in a world where religion is used to destroy, not to improve life.

People today talk of a clash of civilizations, when the real clash is the lack of respect for the other, the lack of dialogue, and the lack of effort to understand each other. Today's situation resembles a conversation in which everyone wants to express his point of view without hearing the other person's point of view or concerns.

Today we desperately need people of Dr. Schweitzer's stature. We need to follow his philosophy, based on an essential respect for life. As he constantly stressed, the progress of civilization is closely linked to a conception of the importance of life. Only those who say yes to life, to the world in which we live, are capable of making civilization progress.

When we look up in horror to the destruction of a country through a war based on false premises, and at the potential destruction of another sovereign nation, we need to remember Dr. Schweitzer's words in a 1963 letter to President John F. Kennedy, "The goal toward which we should direct our sight from now to the farthest future is that we should not let war decide issues that separate nations, but we should always try to find a pacific solution to them."

We will reach that understanding only through dialogue with those who think in different ways from us, when we learn to listen to their concerns and fears. Perhaps then Dr. Schweitzer's guiding principle will become a reality, "I am life that wants to live, surrounded by life that wants to live."

César Chelala is an international public health consultant who has traveled extensively throughout Africa on health-related missions.

© 2006 International Herald Tribune