the ethics of living

After the game, the King and the Pawn go into the same box. –Italian proverb

When I was a young boy, I thought I wanted to be a medical missionary like Dr Albert Schweitzer. I remember him being frequently in the news in the 1950s for his work at the Lambaréné Hospital in today’s Gabon, known as French Equatorial Africa at the time.

schweitzerstatueSchweitzer was also a theologian as well as musical scholar and organist. In his unfinished four-part “Philosophy of Culture” subtitled: “The World-view of Reverence for Life,” he expressed the belief that Western civilization was decaying because it had abandoned the affirmation of life as its ethical foundation. He feared that the life-affirming optimism of the Age of Reason had begun to evaporate. To him, our lives were simply playing out in a world devoid of ethics, an objective world portrayed by science as simply one driven by an expression of the will-to-live.

His “Reverence for Life” says that “the only thing we are really sure of is that we live and want to go on living. This is something that we share with everything else that lives, from elephants to blades of grass and, of course, every human being. So we are brothers and sisters to all living things, and owe to all of them the same care and respect that we wish for ourselves.”

To Schweitzer, however, mankind had to accept that objective reality is ethically neutral. As sentient creatures, we have the obligation to affirm a new Enlightenment through spiritual rationalism. To be fully human, Schweitzer believed that we need to commit to a particular course of action or “ethical will” and thus align ourselves with a new moral structure to guide civilization. This would play out in heightening our respect for life, curbing our coarser impulses and hollow doctrines, and leading us to live in the service of other people and of every living creature. To Schweitzer, the contemplation of the will-to-life, or the respect for the life of others, became the highest principle and the defining purpose of humanity. To him, his Lambaréné Hospital was just “my own improvisation on the themes of ‘Reverence for Life.’ Everyone can have their own Lambaréné.”

As I awake to the unusual coolness of an early July morning, I cannot help but think of where the Albert Schweitzers of this world are today. When I read in the days’s headlines of horrific pillage, plunder and cruel death all happening around me, I can only wonder what will become of all that is considered sacred. In reflection, I am keenly aware that but for the grace of accident and chance I wasn’t born in Sudan or Afghanistan nearly 70 years ago. My life wasn’t defined by knowing what it is to be caught up between waste lands ruled by narco warlords in Mexico. Nor did I spend my young life in a refugee camp in Syria or Gaza keeping flies off my baby sister and scavenging for food. My dreams were not focused on the nightmare of wondering what had happened to my father or mother in a Siberian Gulag or in some “re-education” camp in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.

I am now far removed from jostling on busy streets with “important” people rushing to close deals and reap their ill-gained fortunes at the expense of others. I don’t have to bump up against empty business suits en route to their own version of pillaging parties. And I thank my lucky stars that I never have to break bread or raise money for politicians of any stripe. My quiet hours are never spent in mega churches or in the company of salesmen hocking their way to salvation or the nearest used car lot.

My best time is spent listening to the stories of old men and women who are invisible and have been forgotten. I prefer to worship at the feet of those who volunteer in free clinics and food pantries. I will gladly walk the dogs of those who nurse the ill. I will shave my head in solidarity with the child struck down with leukemia. I can find no better way to live than to follow Schweitzer’s ethos: “I am life which wills to live, and I exist in the midst of life which wills to live.”

If only our world truly honored and tried to help all life, not just the unborn but the child in danger and need, the ill with no friend, the mentally bereft with no way out, the battered with no escape, the malnourished, the unemployed, the hopeless and lost souls never seen as more than numbers, the world’s endless pens full of strays alone and awaiting death, then perhaps a real new world order could stand a chance.

We must listen and be grateful and never forget our past or those who came before us. As I reflect on Schweitzer and his reverence of the commandment not to kill or to cause damage, I am taken back in my mind to a line from T.S.Eliot’s “Little Gidding” from the “Four Quartets,” words that are inscribed on his commemorative stone in Westminster Abbey:

“the communication / Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond / the language of the living.”

Photo: Schweitzer sculpture in Darmstadt, Germany, by Michael Mertens, Creative Commons license

David Evans

I'm retired from another life and live in the mountains of eastern West Virginia with my muse Jody along with one remaining dog.  We've decided no more dogs and cats.  Losing them is just too painful. Being independent and no longer in the reins of someone else's driver, I now have the chance to revisit the many people and places that have enriched my life. The good folks at Wesleyan College in central West Virginia guided me to a graduate degree in fine arts in early 2018.  My plan is to use some of the skills I learned from two years in this creative writing program to tell my story.