» Finding Meaning in Life by Joie Karnes

How is a person to find meaning in life? According to Albert Schweitzer, in his book Out of My Life and Thought, the only way of giving meaning to one’s existence is to "raise his physical relationship to the world to a spiritual one" (233). This first involves passive inward experience, then active experience with the world (233). Schweitzer claims this will lead to an ethical affirmation for all life, which he refers to as Reverence for Life (234). In this paper I will look at these two stages of passive and active relationship to the world and how I think Schweitzer went through these steps in his own life to reach his ethic of Reverence for Life. I will also include some of the ways I think he lived this ethic. I will conclude with questions about what Schweitzer calls elemental thinking and how Schweitzer and others seem to arrive at the starting point of this journey.

The passive inward experience that leads to a spiritual relationship with the world begins with resignation (233). It occurs when, feeling subordinate to world events, one moves toward "inward freedom from the fate that shapes his external existence" (233). This inner freedom affords one the strength needed to succeed in everyday difficulties and to become a "deeper and more inward person, calm and peaceful" (233). Schweitzer considered resignation as the "spiritual and ethical affirmation of one’s own existence," and to be capable of accepting the world, one must go through the "trial of resignation" (233).

The active role is different from the passive in that the spiritual relationship one has with the world is not seen in isolation (233). "On the contrary, he is united with the lives that surround him; he experiences the destinies of others as his own. He helps as much as he can and realizes that there is no greater happiness than to participate in the development and protection of life" (233). Schweitzer continues this line of thought to the conclusion that once a person begins considering the mystery of one’s individual life and then connects that to all that lives in the world, the ethic of Reverence for Life will naturally be reached (234). One will then live this ethic. As a result, life will be more difficult than a self-centered life would have been, but life will be "richer, more beautiful, and happier" because of it. For Schweitzer it will become "instead of mere living, a genuine experience of life" (234).

coverSchweitzer seemed to be a contemplative person even in childhood. However, I wonder if some of the influences that led him to such deep inner reflection included being able to excel in so many areas. Some of us might be deluded into thinking that if only we were at the top of our game, whether it be basketball, business, or art, we would find the meaning of life. If we do not find meaning, it could be because we never made it to the top. We could die trying the wrong path and never know it. Schweitzer did not have the luxury of that delusion. He was not only at the top in one area, he was accomplished in many. The thought of success in any endeavor as the solution to the question of meaning in life could be experientially proven false by Schweitzer. (This is my speculation, of course, not Schweitzer’s.)

After receiving much acclaim in many diverse fields (music, organ building, theology, philosophy), he decided to serve others by becoming a doctor of medicine and practicing in Africa. His extraordinary efforts taken to accomplish this goal were interrupted in the early years by World War I. At first he was denied the opportunity to practice medicine. Next, he and his wife were taken to an internment camp as prisoners of war. Then he returned home to Alsace to find the horrors of war all around him, including the news that his mother had been trampled to death by soldiers on horses. How could someone who did so much good in the world experience so much bad? It seems that – by itself – life led in the service of others, as the solution to the question of meaning in life, could also be proven false (experientially) by Schweitzer.

Schweitzer went into a depression after the war. Could it be the combination of all of these factors (broad exceptional success, service of others, death and destruction) that led him to experience the feeling of subordination to world events on a profound level? Perhaps this is when he combined his religious background and training with his introspective nature to reach experientially the passive inward experience he later articulates as part of the journey towards living the ethic of Reverence for Life.

From caring for the Africans in his hospital, to sharing his food with the ants under his house, Schweitzer clearly exemplifies one who has a relationally active role with the universe. While he seemed to have always been sensitive, he learned over time the importance of not hurting animals and the importance of helping them. He also seemed to have to learn about relationships with people. As a child, he was said to have had a mean temper and once actually hit his sister in the face. In school, he had not participated in a study group until he was in his thirties at medical school, and he was resistant to join even then. (One could assume he had no need for a study group before, because he was so bright, but that would not be consistent with his obligation to and joy in serving others.)

Schweitzer had a fantastic ability to remember specific details in his life referring to when he learned something. For example, when a man came through town with his cart and was made fun of by the (Christian) children (because the man was Jewish), Schweitzer learned from the humble dignity and compassion the man showed the ignorant children (including Schweitzer). During the war, when Schweitzer and his wife were laden with more baggage than they were strong enough to carry, a stranger offered to help them. From that point on, Schweitzer made a point of helping those with more bags than they were able to carry. Schweitzer’s role continually expanded and is evident in his political involvement (late in life) speaking out against nuclear weapons.

Schweitzer could very well have developed this active part of his theory over a lifetime of experiences in which the internal rewards for acting in the service of others far outweighed the effects of harming them.

I spell out experientially some of the events that I believe could have contributed to Schweitzer’s development of the ethic Reverence for Life, because I subscribe to Bill Wilson’s suggestion that the spiritual life is not a theory, it has to be lived. What Schweitzer calls elemental thinking "starts from fundamental questions about the relationship of man to the universe, about the meaning of life, and about the nature of what is good" (228). I don’t think people ask these questions unless they are already in the process of resignation to the world, trying to reconcile the contradictions that make acceptance of the world as it is seem impossible. When the spiritual bankruptcy of the age reaches each individual, then they have the ability to start on the path of resignation that leads to living the ethic Reverence for Life. No matter how profound, I do not think any will get it just from reading it. The service I think Schweitzer is now providing us is what to do when we do look for meaning in life.

Alcoholics and addicts of all sorts are finding meaning in life in just the way Schweitzer prescribes. Through twelve step programs people must accept their subordination to world events and develop inner freedom and serenity, and to keep it they are told they have to give it away in the service of others. The basic premise is that of Reverence for Life. Some people are better at incorporating reverence for all life (not just human life) than others, but I think there is hope. Personal responsibility for all of a person’s actions (which Schweitzer also emphasized) is crucial to the twelve step programs, and is also an essential component of Reverence for Life. Perhaps programs like these will help usher in what Schweitzer believed we need: "a new spiritual force strong enough to evoke a new spirit in mankind" (243).


In Marvin Meyer and Kurt Bergel, eds., Reverence for Life: The Ethics of Albert Schweitzer for the Twenty-First Century (Syracuse:  Syracuse University Press, 2002).


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