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Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2012

World in dire need of people like Dr. Schweitzer

NEW YORK — The long-standing conflicts now taking place in several countries around the world remind me of a visit I made to Lambarene, Gabon, a few years ago.

It was there that the famous Dr. Albert Schweitzer had carried out his humanitarian work, saving the lives of thousands of patients with total dedication to their health and well being. His is a lesson we should listen to today.

I was at Cite Soleil, where a community of lepers still lives, in a special ward created for the hospital. During my visit, three men were sitting on a bench, one of whom was trying to fix a violin, his hands ravaged by the disease. I took out my camera and was ready to take his picture when he yelled at me, "Don't shoot!"

Startled by his reaction, I asked him why he didn't want his picture taken. As he continued working on his violin he told me, "You don't even bother to say hello, you don't ask for our permission and you want to take our picture?" I apologized, greeted him properly and asked his permission for a photograph. He then readily agreed. That man taught me an important lesson.

Although my intention had not been to show him any disrespect, that is what I was essentially doing. I felt I had the right to take his photo because I thought it was an interesting shot, but I hadn't respected his right to say no. That he was a leper who had probably encountered much disrespect in the past made my insensitivity even worse.

I realized that the man's assertiveness about his rights and the atmosphere of quiet pride in Cite Soleil were no accident.

Schweitzer was a remarkable human being because of his devotion to the needs of those less fortunate. He left a brilliant professional career as a musician and theologian to become a physician. He then moved to Africa with his wife, built a hospital in Lambarene from what had been a chicken coop, and devoted his life to treating thousands of patients out of an irrepressible sense of personal duty.

Looking at a herd of hippos in the Ogowe River, close to the hospital, Schweitzer strengthened his commitment to the sanctity of life: "The greatest evil is to destroy life, to injure life, to repress life that is capable of development."

I couldn't help comparing Schweitzer's approach to life to what is happening in today's world, when we live in what seems to be a permanent state of war and where the reasons for going to war are becoming more and more irrelevant.

To make things even worse, in today's world, religion is used many times as an excuse to destroy, not to respect life.

People today speak of a clash of civilizations, when the real clash is the lack of respect for the other, the lack of dialogue, the lack of effort to understand each other.

Today we desperately need people of Schweitzer's stature. We need to follow his philosophy, based on an essential respect for life. As he constantly stressed, the progress of civilization is closely linked to a conception of the importance of life. Only those who say yes to life, to the world in which we live, are capable of making civilization progress.

Although the medical work at the hospital continues after his death, his message of peace has been lost in today's world, ravaged by sinister wars and unnecessary loss of life.

Standing in his room, where he kept some his medical instruments and looking at his old, battered piano, I felt the force of his extraordinary personality, and became keenly aware of how later generations have betrayed his legacy of peace.

When we look up in horror at what is happening in Syria today, at the decades of conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, at the wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya we need to remember Schweitzer's words in a 1963 letter to U.S. President John F. Kennedy: "The goal toward which we should direct our sight from now to the farthest future is that we should not let war decide issues that separate nations, but we should always try to find a pacific solution to them."

We will reach that understanding only through dialogue with those who think in different ways from us, when we learn to listen to their concerns and fears.

Perhaps then Schweitzer's guiding principle will become a reality, "I am life that wants to live, surrounded by life that wants to live."

Cesar Chelala, M.D. and Ph.D., is a winner of the Overseas Press Club of America Award for an article on human rights.

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