Posted by: Gray | April 26, 2014

Reflections on Schweitzer’s “Reverence for Life”

I never quite know what I may find in unusual places — including  watching TV 😉

After recently watching the Albert Schweitzer episode in THE ADVENTURES OF THE YOUNG INDIANA JONES, I was led to think about  Schweitzer’s core principle of ethics — in ways that give echo to my own sense of what is expressed in a song of mine called “We All Come From Africa”. To listen to that song, click here: 

What is “reverence for life” or what Schweitzer called “Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben”?

In English, “reverence” suggests church, it suggests being quiet, it suggest being very attentive to someone speaking from a pulpit or something being viewed in a museum or altar or judges bench by one of us congregated in the mass of the of common and mundane folk who get to view or hear the object of our reverence. And it suggests something framed not only by an altar or pulpit or exhibition proscenium but framed as well by one or more ideas – by intellectual and abstract principles or notions that we might capitalize like Beauty, Truth, Justice, God . . .

For a long time I thought of Schweitzer’s principle in this way. I admired it as a testament from someone who seemd to be an especially good man who had done heroic things with his life – risking his all (family, wealth, reputation, life . . .) to deliver desperately needed medicine to strangers in a strange and dangerous and distant land. But it seemed so abstract. And impossibly filled with contradiction – if I revere the life in the deer, how do I treat the wolf? Or the plants the deer eats?

And this came in part from the way I imagined Schweitzer coming upon the phrase and principle. He himself was a very gifted and well read intellectual and he himself spoke of a very intellectual process not that unfamiliar to me as someone who has worked multiple years on academic writings. In his autobiography “Out of My Life and Thought” he explains this process. Having described how at the beginning of the summer of 1915 he awoke from some kind of mental daze, asking himself why he was only criticizing civilization and not working on something constructive, he asked himself the question:

But what is civilization?

The essential element in civilization is the ethical perfecting of the individual as well as society. At the same time, every spiritual and every material step forward has significance for civilization. The will to civilization is, then, the universal will to progress that is conscious of the ethical as the highest value. In spite of the great importance we attach to the achievements of science and human prowess, it is obvious that only a humanity that is striving for ethical ends can benefit in full measure from material progress and can overcome the dangers that accompany it . . . The only possible way out of chaos is for us to adopt a concept of the world based on the ideal of true civilization . . . . For months on end I lived in a continual state of mental agitation. Without the least success I concentrated – even during my daily work at the hospital, – on the real nature of the affirmation of life and of ethics and on the question of what they have in common. I was wandering about in a thicket where no path was to be found. I was pushing against an iron door that would not yield.

But recently I entered into Schweitzer’s experience and thought in a different way.

I imagined him not as the German Philosopher but as the medical missionary, working out of a hut in Africa surrounded by teeming jungle and on the edge of a great flowing river. I invite you to see him this way. He is a doctor who has been saving lives, tending bones and flesh, watching it heal of itself in miraculous ways, traveling in a vast wilderland with teeming trees bushes and birds and animals, traveling along the river . . and the motor cuts out . . . the boat sits quite in the flow of the river . . . and suddenly he stops listening to his own furious intellect and openly attends to the life around him . . . he can hear the silence of it and then, the Presence of all that life around – in the water where fish are swimming with crocs and hippos, at the bank where herons wade and grasses grow, in the trees where monkeys call and the bushes where birds flit about (not like ideas read in a poem by T. S. Eliot but like real birds in the bush over here, now) and he sees the child sitting on its mother’s lap on the boat – the child whose birth he witnessed as an incredibly complex process of brains and hips and bones and muscles and lungs and contractions and shouts and spreading of one set of legs to make room for another’s and community cooperation in choosing partners and cultivating care. . .

And he sits there, in awe, as a medical person, who can appreciate how unthinkably complex this whole jungle and river of life is . . . and that it includes him – he is a vital part of it all . . .

And the phrase “Ehrfrucht vor dem Leben” comes to mind to give that sense expression.

How to express that sense in English?

It is not like the tame reverence of a docile congregant attending an object behind a frame or proscenium.

It is the awe of someone being splashed by a Niagara Falls.

It is not the reverence of a person sitting meditating on an abstract Principle or Idea.

It is the rushing sense of enthusiasm and glory of you as an adolescent running out from school on a flush spring day with sunlight zinging through all the plants and birds chirping busily to nest and bees buzzing noisily in their honey-sweet acts of pollination and then your own jumpy urge to prance and find some sweet other to dance about with in the grass . . .

Perhaps we could agree with Wikpedia suggestion that: The phrase Reverence for Life is a translation of the German phrase: “Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben” (more accurately translated as: “to be in awe of the mystery of life”). [NOTE: this misses the import of “vor” which can mean because of or from – so it is something like awe or wonder from or at or because of life”]

A better writer could surely express it with even much greater power than that phrase does or than my writing here has managed . But I think that the key is not to find a piece of writing somewhere in this text or some other that describes the feeling. The key is to have it. To go forth and feel the life pulsing in your veins and that of the others – every person, plant, beast and organism on this wondrous planet.

And when you feel that . . . then it will be time to consider how best to deal with haovc of Global Warming or grinding away at life with asphalt and cement and inorganic chemicals or the possibilities of future Silent Springs.


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