Reverence for Life
The Story of Albert Schweitzer
By Cecil Northcott
"He who sacrifices his life," he [Albert Schweitzer] wrote, "to achieve any purpose for an individual or for humanity is practicing life-affirmation."
Thinking about this one day as he sat on the little deck of a tug-steamer going up the river Schweitzer's eye roamed over the endless forest as it rolled slowly past. He saw the trees, the dense undergrowth which never stopped growing and if the long bush-knife was not kept busy would soon swallow up everything. He saw the long snout of a hippopotamus poke itself above the sweeping surface of the river, and he knew once again that beneath the river surface there was life going on all the time, although you could not always see it.
What was the meaning of all this life, he wondered. How did it link itself to his own life? What was he to do with the monkeys, the ants, the antelopes, the spiders, and the birds of the forest? Were they as important as the poor people who came to him to be cured, or relieved of their pain? Did the animals suffer like human beings? What was it like to be a moth, which fluttered round his lamp at night?
All these thoughts were passing through Schweitzer's mind as the little tug chugged along up river.
Suddenly an inspiration flashed into his mind, and the phrase "reverence for life" came to his lips. Yes, that was what he believed. That was what he was looking for. He revered and respected all living creatures. All things were sacred. That was why when he went out with a gun he found it hard to shoot a monkey although his African friends would like him to. He was ready to shoot snakes but not monkeys. Sometimes a monkey, shot down from a tree, would fall far away, and lie wounded in the forest, and a baby monkey would be found clinging to its dying mother.
When he was driving piles for the new hospital foundations Schweitzer would often look into the hole to see whether a toad, or even an ant, had got down there and might be killed when the pile was driven in. Many of his African friends of the forest laughed at "the doctor's queer ideas" about the living creatures of the forest. But some of them understood.
One day an African workman was working with Schweitzer hewing down the undergrowth. A little toad sprang out from the thicket, and the workman's mate wanted to kill it with his bush-knife. But the workman clutched the man's arm and held it tightly, while he told him of what the doctor had said about all animals being created by God and that some day there would be a great palaver with the men who torment and kill them.
Schweitzer was pleased that one who was so often thoughtless of wild animals should teach his friend the truth he himself believed in. He knew, of course, that all life could not be preserved and kept alive all the time. When he looked at living germs beneath a microscope he knew that they must die in order that his patient should live. When he bought a young fish-eagle from some of the river men in order to save it from the cruel hands of those who were about to torment it he had every day to kill a lot of little fish to feed the fish-eagle. Sometimes, he knew, life had to be given in order to keep another life alive but he reverenced both, and he believed that the African forest was helping him better to understand and respect the wonders of all God's creation. Even when a juicy grapefruit was brought to him to eat he would always drop a spoonful of the juice on the floor beside him. As he watched a crowd of tiny black ants rushing to get a drink he would smile and say, "Look at my ants! Just like cows round a pond!" [Of cause we must have reverence for our own life too. Ed. (Sitting Owl)]