Suppose you had it all. Suppose you were solidly established in one profession, had a respectable job in a second profession on weekends, and, in addition, were an accomplished musician and author. Suppose you marveled some audiences with your lectures, wowed others as a concert soloist, and had enough ideas for research and writing to last a lifetime.
Suppose, to the mortification of your friends, you abruptly chucked this comfortable life at age 30 to return to school for seven years, then went off to practice the new skills you’d learned in a primitive corner of western Africa. Suppose you were Albert Schweitzer.
A minister’s son born in Upper Alsace, Schweitzer (1875-1965) studied theology, earned his doctorate of philosophy at the University of Strasbourg, and began lecturing at its Theological College in 1902. He preached at a church, and wrote on theology in his spare time.
Yet from 1905 to 1912, he studied medicine, then left to found a hospital in the colony of the Congo. Dr. Schweitzer acquired a global following during his trips back to Europe to raise funds through lectures, organ recitals, and book sales. His life was chock-a-block full of experiences that spanned the wide spectrum between human suffering and exultation, including a stay in a World War I prisoner-of-war camp, and the receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952.
The question Schweitzer’s life poses for many observers is: What made him give up a good life for a riskier, far less well-paying, but ultimately great life?
“The plan which I meant to put into execution had been in my mind for a long time, having been conceived so long ago as my student days. It struck me as incomprehensible that I should be allowed to lead such a happy life, while I saw so many people around me wrestling with care and suffering.
“Even at school I had felt stirred whenever I got a glimpse of the miserable home surroundings of some of my schoolfellows and compared them with the absolutely ideal conditions in which we children lived. While at the university and enjoying the happiness of being able to study and even to produce some results in science and art, I could not help thinking continually of others who were denied that happiness by their material circumstances or their health.
“Then one brilliant Summer morning at Guensbach, there came to me, as I awoke, the thought that I must not accept this happiness as a matter of course, but must give something in return for it. Proceeding to think the matter out at once with calm deliberation, while the birds were singing outside, I settled with myself before I got up, that I would consider myself justified in living till I was 30 for science and art, in order to devote myself from that time forward to the direct service of humanity.
“Many a time already had I tried to settle what meaning lay hidden for me in the saying of Jesus: ‘Whosoever would save his life shall lose it, and whosoever shall lose his life for My sake and the Gospels shall save it!’ Now the answer was found.
“I now had inward happiness. What would be the character of the activities thus planned for the future was not yet clear to me. I left it to circumstances to guide me. One thing only was certain, that it must be directly human service, however inconspicuous the sphere of it…
“One morning in 1904, I found on my writing table in the college one of the green-covered magazines in which the Paris Missionary Society reported every month on its activities. A certain Miss Scherdlin used to put them there knowing that I was especially interested in this society on account of the impression made on me by the letters of one of its earliest missionaries. Casalis by name, when my father read them aloud at his missionary services during my childhood.
“That evening, in the very act of putting it aside that I might go on with my work, I mechanically opened this magazine, which had been laid on my table during my absence. As I did so, my eye caught the title of an article: ‘Les besoins de la Mission du Congo’ (The needs of the Congo Mission).
“It was by Alfred Boegner, the president of the Paris Missionary Society, an Alsatian, and contained a complaint that the mission had not enough workers to carry on its work in the Gaboon, the northern province of the Congo Colony. The writer expressed his hope that his appeal would bring some of those ‘on whom the Master’s eyes already rested’ to a decision to offer themselves for this urgent work.
“The conclusion ran: ‘Men and women who can reply simply to the Master’s call, ‘Lord, I am coming,’ those are the people whom the Church needs.’
“Having finished the article, I quietly began my work. My search was over.”
Donna Murphy, "Gone from my life and thought," Irondequoit Press, December 29, 1994.