Dr. Schweitzer Remembers

Source: Marshall, George and David Poling, Schweitzer: A Biography. Pillar Books, Doubleday and Co., New York, 1975.

Setting: The year is 1966. Dr. Schweitzer is sitting on a bench under a tree in the schoolyard near his hospital at Lambarene in Gabon, Africa. He is surrounded by a small number of children. The following (imaginary) conversation occurs.


DOCTOR: Well, well! School is finished for the day and your teacher said that you could go. How is it that some of you are still here?

FIRST CHILD: Teacher saw you sitting here and said for us to talk to you.

DOCTOR: Oh? And what did Teacher think that we might talk about?

SECOND CHILD: In our classroom we are writing about you and about how it was here before you came.

THIRD CHILD: And why you came to help us and to change this place.

FOURTH CHILD: She said that you are a great man. All over the world they say that you are a great man. And yet you came to live with us. I do not understand that.

FIRST CHILD: And she said you may die here with us. Soon, perhaps, she said. So if we are going to ask you about things it should be now.

THIRD CHILD: You should not say that. Teacher will scold if she hears you told the Doctor he might die soon.

DOCTOR: Never mind about that. I know that I shall die soon. After all, I am over ninety years old. My dear wife died in her eightieth year. And as for dying here, where else would I want my ashes to lie but here, beside the hospital, with those of my beloved Helene?

FOURTH CHILD: So can you tell us, or are you too tired today?

DOCTOR: What is it that you want me to tell you?

(There is a silence, during which the children look at one another, make marks in the sand, etc.)

DOCTOR: I have an idea. Let each one think of a question. Something you would like to know about me. About my life. I will try to answer them all.

FIRST CHILD: About when you were little, like us. That is what I want to know.

DOCTOR: Would you like me to tell you what I remember most about my childhood?


OTHERS: We would like that.

DOCTOR: Mostly I find myself remembering the experiences that changed me forever. For instance -- once, when I was about six years old, I saw two men leading an old, sickly horse down a narrow street towards the glue factory. One man was yanking cruelly at the bridle. The other cursed and struck the faltering horse from behind. Yet anyone could see that the horse was too old and sick to stagger along without resting. I could almost feel the suffering of that horse but I was too little and afraid to try to stop the cruelty of those men.

SECOND CHILD: Were you always kind to animals, even when you were little?

DOCTOR: Not always. When I was about your age I had a dog, Phylax. When the postman came it was my job to restrain Phylax. I began to use a switch on him even though I knew that I needed only to touch his collar to hold him in. I enjoyed the feeling of power, you see. Suddenly I realized what a bad thing that was. I tried never again to allow myself to bully anyone or anything less powerful than I.

SECOND CHILD: Was it then that you decided to care for animals and not to hunt or kill them?

DOCTOR: I guess it was a gradual thing. Yet, there was one incident that affected my whole life, I think. One day I went out with a friend to shoot birds with slingshots. We were crouching, waiting for the birds. Just as they flew up before us, making excellent targets, a distant bell started ringing. For me, it seemed a sort of warning. I jumped up and frightened the birds off, before my friend could shoot.

THIRD CHILD: What did your friend do?

DOCTOR: He was very angry, and he made fun of me. But I realized that I did not care, for the birds were safe. And that really was the lesson that I learned that day. Not to be afraid of being laughed at for refusing to go along with the crowd.

FOURTH CHILD: Have you ever gone hunting since?

DOCTOR: No. Never. I suppose, all in all, that those early influences upon me that formed the commitment not to kill or torture other creatures amount to the greatest lessons of my childhood.

FIRST CHILD: But what about the time all our cats and dogs were killed, here at Lambarene? My mother told me that you had ordered it.

THIRD CHILD: Keep quiet! It is not good to remind the Doctor of that time.

DOCTOR: Do not scold her. I am glad she mentioned it. That was the time that we had two cases of rabies in the hospital. Rabies is a very serious disease that kills people and other animals. I knew that some of the dogs and cats were likely to be carrying the disease. It was a hard decision to make, but life forces these kinds of decisions on us all the time. Either our pets would all have to die, quickly and without suffering, or many people would become terribly ill, and some would die horrible deaths. I chose to put the people, you and your parents, before the dogs and cats.

FIRST CHILD: So sometimes we have to kill?

DOCTOR: Sometimes. But only when not to kill would cause even more death and suffering.

FIRST CHILD: Or when not to kill an animal in the jungle for food would mean that your family would starve.

DOCTOR: But all this is making us sad. Let us talk about something else. Is there another question?

SECOND CHILD: Why did you come here in the first place? Teacher says you were a great musician and a great organ builder.

FOURTH CHILD: And a great minister and a great scholar, writer and professor

THIRD CHILD: Don't forget that he is a great scientist and a great doctor also.

DOCTOR: (chuckling): All those "greats"! Actually I was a very ordinary person who was fortunate where family and friends were concerned and in being able to decide what I wanted to do with my life, and to be able to live simply and work hard in order to do it. It is true that by the time I was thirty I had gained a certain amount of worldly success and recognition. But I was not satisfied. The more I studied and wrote about religion the more I realized that "doing" good and having a good life were what mattered -- not merely thinking and writing about "goodness"; or worshipping figures from the distant past who became symbols of the "good."

SECOND CHILD: You mean it's more important to act than to think?

DOCTOR: Not at all. Thinking and reasoning are extremely important. In fact I believe that it is precisely because of the lack of clear thinking that our civilization is failing.

FIRST CHILD: Did you come here to get away from civilization then?

DOCTOR: Perhaps. But at the time there were no doctors here -- no medicine -- no hospitals for hundreds of miles. People became blind, hideously crippled, suffered and died needlessly by the thousands, and I wanted to change all that. I believed that the white race had treated the black race very badly and that it was my duty to "spend" my life -- this precious life that has been granted to me -- in trying to make up to the black people for the crimes committed against them by people from Europe, the northern countries where I came from.

FOURTH CHILD: How did you get from there to Lambarene?

DOCTOR: I decided to become a medical missionary because I believed that if people's lives were saved they could look after their own souls. I studied hard for years and became an expert in tropical diseases, as did my wife, who trained as a nurse. But after all that preparation the Missionary Society would not have me. They did not like some of my writings about the Christian church. But I refused to be stopped. I wrote begging letters, traveled, put on concerts and did all manner of things to raise enough money to pay for our own passage and the building of a hospital here.

SECOND CHILD: Is this the hospital you built?

DOCTOR: No. Our first hospital was on the mission grounds (chuckle). They put up with me as long as I promised not to preach.

THIRD CHILD: But you are our minister -- not just our doctor.

DOCTOR: Oh yes. I soon found that the missionaries out here were not nearly so strict and frightened of my ideas as were the church officials in their comfortable offices back in Europe.

FIRST CHILD: Now that you are old, have you changed your ideas about Christian churches?

DOCTOR: I have even less hope than before that they will save the world. They have grown too far away from the simple teachings of Jesus, the simple man from Nazareth. I have some hope that the Quakers (the historic church of peace) and the Unitarians (the historic church of martyrdom) may stand firm for reason and peaceful compromise in human affairs. But they are so small in numbers they are like pebbles thrown into the sea.

SECOND CHILD: Is there no hope, then? Will the world be blown up by bombs?

DOCTOR: The major religions of the world will not prevent it, neither the Eastern nor the Western varieties. Perhaps scientists will if they speak out loudly enough and with one voice. They have the most authority on the issue, and the most responsibility. That is why my good friend, Albert Einstein, decided to take a public stand on the matter. And that is why I joined him.

FOURTH CHILD: But what can ordinary people do?

DOCTOR: Be peacemakers in your own lives and treat your fellows as you yourselves would wish to be treated. On public issues recognize all humanity as your allies. Know that only war itself is your country's enemy. And do not let power-hungry leaders convince you otherwise.

THIRD CHILD: Is that all we need remember about how to live our lives?

DOCTOR: Not quite. Remember that you do not live in a world all your own. Your fellow humans have needs and rights too, and so do other forms of life. And now, because it's time for me to rest, I will go home. But I want to leave you with four rules for living, and you can tell these to your teacher and your friends. They are the principles that have guided me all my life. First of all is concern for others. Second is to think carefully about what you want your whole life to stand for and then act so as to make it so, regardless of what others may say and do. Third, respect life in all its forms, and fourth, be thankful for what life has given you.

CHILDREN: Thank you, Doctor. Thank you for all that you have given us and our parents and grandparents. Rest well.

DOCTOR: Goodbye. Thank you for helping an old man remember.

A "playlet" excerpted from Pat Duffy Hutcheon, On the Shoulders of Giants: Senior-level R.E. Curriculum for Unitarian Universalist Churches, 1987.