REVERENCE FOR LIFE
Mottos often have double meanings that add to their richness and relevance. Living by those mottos can also be enriching … but so, so challenging.
Many decades ago, when I was in grade school, our social studies teacher assigned each of us the task of researching and writing about the historical importance of a famous person. Heavy duty Encyclopedia Britannica research followed for most of us! Our teacher did not allow us to choose who that person might be. Instead, she instructed us to draw from a glass fish bowl on her desk one of the small folded pieces of paper on each of which she had written a different person’s name. I was hoping for something better or at least more familiar – like a sports celebrity or a founding father – than the name I drew: Albert Schweitzer. Albert who??!
Now, to remind those to whom that name may be only vaguely familiar, Dr. Albert Schweitzer was a German Lutheran theologian, organist, musicologist, writer, humanitarian, philosopher and physician. Mercy! Where to start on writing up his biography and accomplishments?! He was born in 1875 and studied music and religion as a young man before taking up medicine to be more than just a preacher. He aspired to be a healing and serving spiritual leader as well, though not in Europe, mind you, but curing the sick in the impoverished villages of Africa.
In 1952, just a couple of years before I was assigned the task to research him, Dr. Schweitzer was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The Peace Prize recognized his work in establishing the first surgical hospital in French Equatorial Africa, a French colonial territory that in 1958 would become the independent nation of Gabon.
For my class assignment I duly chronicled Dr. Schweitzer’s life and inventoried his major accomplishments in my five-page report – the minimum number of pages our teacher required for a passing grade. Then I moved on to my more immediate coming-of-age challenges and forgot about the good German doctor in Africa.
Some years later, in 1965 when I had just completed college and was still exploring what the future held for me, I again came across Dr. Schweitzer’s name, almost by chance as I remember, in a newspaper obituary. For some reason I suddenly felt a sense of loss for this man whom I had never met, nor whose work had touched me directly in any way. What stood out for me at the time was the headline of the newspaper column about Dr. Schweitzer’s life: “Reverence for Life.” That phrase had been attributed to Dr. Schweitzer not because he was its originator - it draws from an Old Testament biblical passage, Malachi 2:5 - but rather because it was the motto by which he lived.
Dr. Schweitzer’s motto – the double commitment to respect and protect all living creatures and to dedicate a lifetime doing so - has been a part of me more than a half century now. I’ve discovered it’s an unbelievably demanding metric by which to live, but something that I can incrementally approach even if never fully attain. I’m OK with that.
With what I’m not OK, however, is my zig-zag course of life that all too frequently has detoured away from doing more to respect and protect living things no matter where they fit on the tree of life and in the ecosystems we share. In retrospect I recognize that too often my energies have focused elsewhere beyond the needs of creatures that inhabit our planet.
And I’m not alone in this oversight. One of the greatest ironies I see is the time and resources that we as a nation put into trying to discover life elsewhere in the universe. It’s at the core of much of the science fiction literature and a driver of huge investments in space probes and satellite telescopes. The goal of these investments - to discover whether we are indeed alone in the cosmos or merely one of scores of thousands of habitable spheres in space – has set mankind off on an intriguing adventure of exploration into unknown and still unknowable worlds beyond our solar system. At the same time, however, our own planet continues to be degraded and the diversity of the living world depleted.
There’s even a special branch of science dedicated to the study of possible life on remote planets in our and in distant solar systems. Exobiology is a new field of science dedicated to recreating or locating on earth the range temperatures and chemical compositions that might exist elsewhere in our universe, and then testing to see what organisms might thrive under those conditions. Today a small band of NASA exobiologists is conducting studies of life forms found near high temperature volcanic vents miles deep in the Pacific Ocean and in permanently sub-zero ice pits in the Antarctic. Meanwhile, the earth’s current inventory of life forms continues to diminish in number, in some cases before we can even discover and record them.
That should concern us. In casting our eyes to the skies, are we not neglecting and degrading the very soil on which we stand and the water on which we depend for our survival on our home planet earth? The intoxicating excitement about what life forms exist beyond our solar system has distracted us from responsible stewardship of the life forms around us, particularly those life forms too fragile to survive without the caring hand of the species atop the pyramid of all other living creatures – humans.
Today, cultivating a reverence for life among our future generations seems more critical than ever, much more than when that motto was attached to Dr. Schweitzer’s work. Not only does that motto take on added urgency on today’s climate-stressed planet, but it demands more systematic and sustained effort on the part of our political, academic and spiritual leaders if humanity is to get off the unsustainable path on which it now finds itself.
Ms. McCool, I remember now, was my social studies teacher’s name. “Mother McCool” is what we surreptitiously called her among ourselves. She’d walk up and down the aisles between our desks with a 12-inch ruler in one hand, using it to slap her other palm loud enough to keep our attention. I don’t think she would ever have used that ruler on any of us; but then I don’t think any of us wanted to test that theory.
I wonder now what she would think if she knew what an impact that piece of paper in the glass fish bowl has had on one of her students. She’d probably smile, I suppose, at the thought that I had actually taken to heart – if only in a small and inadequate way – the motto of a German jungle doctor.
As I approach the age at which Dr. Schweitzer was recognized with a Nobel Prize for his work I feel humbled and at the same time prodded to dedicate my remaining time and energy to his unfinished work at healing an ailing planet across the spectrum of all living creatures, human and otherwise. I recognize, though, that a world with a population three times what it was in Dr. Schweitzer’s lifetime and an environment experiencing increasing climate stresses, that generations following me will need the skills, fortitude and conviction of one thousand Albert Schweitzers to address the challenges confronting our survival and the survival of all living things with which we share this planet. Still, maybe it’s not too late. Now, where to begin? Perhaps back in elementary school with hiring and supporting more Mrs. McCools who dedicated to increasing awareness and improving the capacity of new generations to appreciate and protect the natural world around us.
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