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Reverence for Life, Shared Humanity, and Hope

Posted by Dr. Lachlan Forrow  April 23, 2013 11:56 AM

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The news of the Marathon Day horrors in Boston reached me in Lambarene, Gabon, where exactly 100 years ago this month Dr. Albert Schweitzer and his wife Helene Breslau arrived to open the African "village hospital" that gained him fame throughout the world.

Having learned of the relentless, daily suffering of fellow human beings in Africa with no access to the fruits of modern medical science, Schweitzer had left behind extraordinary successes in Europe (in philosophy, theology, and music) to start medical school in 1905 at the age of 30, so he could devote his life to more direct, tangible service than he had found possible as a scholar, pastor, and organist.  

He decided, he told others, "to make my life my argument."

After their arrival in Lambarene, part of French Equatorial Africa, in April 1913, he and Helene, who had trained as a nurse, saw nearly 2,000 patients in the first year alone.  But in 1914, a massive war broke out in Europe. What did this have to do with his medical work thousands of miles away?  As German citizens in a French colony, they were declared enemies, placed under house arrest, and the hospital was closed.

Schweitzer fell into despair, not just about being prevented from doing the medical work that was so desperately needed, but also about European civilization.  The scientific and technical advances borne of the Enlightenment were not being used to build a more humane world, but exactly the opposite -- to construct and use weapons of massive destruction, with which fellow Europeans were now slaughtering each other by the thousands.  He searched his books of Western philosophy and theology for some missing answer, some moral basis for civilization that would have more traction than the abstract philosophy of Kant and others, which clearly had failed.

One day, in a boat out on the majestic Ogooue River that flows through the Lambarene region, captivated by the overwhelming beauty of the surrounding life-filled tropical rainforest, struck in awe by the power of a herd of hippopotami he passed, and yet deeply aware of the vulnerability of life in its many forms, suddenly the phrase Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben -- "Reverence for Life" flashed into his mind.  He had found his answer.

Each of us, he came to believe, is born with a natural capacity to experience and express a profound Reverence for all Life that we find around us.  And when we act on that capacity, reaching out to help life that is vulnerable, in danger, or suffering, and succeed in making a difference to that life, we experience the deepest satisfaction available to us as human beings.  While different moral and religious teachers and traditions -- from the Buddha to Jesus -- use different language to describe this reality of human nature, Schweitzer believed that our shared capacity to experience and express a Reverence for all Life provides the universal basis of all true ethics.  

Yes, Schweitzer knew, we also have many other capacities, including a capacity unique in nature to engage in wanton slaughter of innocent lives around us.  Schweitzer was skeptical of most attempts to "explain" this evil.  I doubt that any of us will ever adequately understand what led two brothers last week to engage in such horrors.

Ultimately, Schweitzer concluded, the only response that matters is for each of us to do what we can to affirm life, through concrete, tangible actions that help where we can.  The fundamental challenge of civilization, Schweitzer believed, is to find ways to consistently nurture and cultivate a Reverence for Life in everything we do.  Most, if not all, of the world's most pressing problems are a result of our inadequacies in doing so.  And each of us has a role: a parent comforting a frightened child, one neighbor helping another, a teacher with a student -- these countless small, often largely-unnoticed acts of caring add up to more than any dramatic acts of a celebrated few.  

Countless Bostonians last week -- in their families, in their neighborhoods, in their workplaces, and beyond -- responded to the horrors by caring for each other in ways that should give us hope for humanity.  These even included some who came face to face with the brothers who had terrorized the city -- the doctors and nurses who responded to each brother as he was brought to the hospital.  As Dr. Richard Wolfe, head of Emergency Medicine at BIDMC, explained to the media, doctors and nurses are trained to respond to any life in danger with the same, unequivocal life-affirming dedication, whether the life in danger is that of "a perpetrator", or the President of the United States.

Over the past week, it was natural to wish we lived in a better world -- a world more fully anchored in a reverence for all life.  Sitting here in Lambarene, on the bank of the Ogooue River thousands of miles from family and friends in Boston, I am reminded that Schweitzer fully believed such a world is possible, if and when each of us, in our own way, each day, does all we can to help build it.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Lachlan Forrow, MD is Director of Ethics Programs and Director of Palliative Care Programs at Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. More »

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