For several decades of the 20th century, Albert Schweitzer was the most admired person around the world. His story was captivating from every perspective: a master musician who could easily fill any concert hall in Europe, he gave up worldly success to serve without pay as a doctor in the jungles of west Africa. A prominent theologian and author, Nobel Peace prize winner and ecologist, he is best known for his philosophy of Reverence for Life, which he lived beautifully.
Schweitzer’s life is loaded with every day visioning principles you can apply to your life — provided you don’t get daunted by his accomplishments and compare yourself unfavorably. Instead, experiment with his ways of seeing reality and possibilities, so you can let your own ideas and inspiration develop.
1. Revere life. Recognize the tiny beetle who lies in the dust as a kindred spirit — a being who just like you has a will to live. In your quest for the big things, appreciate the tiny flowers at your feet and other wonders. Build peace wherever you are and live in harmony with nature. In your quest to serve others, remember that reverence for life applies to you, too, so take care of yourself.
2. Live your values and don’t be shy about speaking them. Schweitzer made his life (not his theology) his argument. He was a model for what we today might call “walk your talk,” but he also unabashedly and humbly spoke his values in a way that inspires others. Today’s information-overloaded world is hungry for stories like the growing body of wisdom that yes, we can, build prosperity with integrity and sustainability.
3. Value integrity over peer and other pressures. At about eight, Schweitzer was delighted to go out with the local boys to play with slingshots. At first, he joined them in their attempts to shoot at birds. Then the church bells rang and he abandoned the slingshot for a commitment to cherish life. Like Schweitzer, you will have many temptations to take the most popular or the most seemingly expedient course. Choose instead the course that is true to you and others.
4. Find your true happiness through service. Yes, enjoy whatever brings you personal pleasure, like making music, cats, a walk through the woods, a chat with an old friend, a great meal. But make service the center of your life, whatever your job. In the process, be willing to give up big pleasures for greater ones.
5. Carry your deepest questions into your prayer and out into the world. If you don’t know what your true purpose is, follow Schweitzer’s lead and try on whatever is fascinating. Get out into the world and let it teach you. See what excites you; go deep inside to listen for the voice of spirit, whatever name you call it. Patiently reflect on why a particular calling is right for you, or not.
6. Pay particular attention to unusual or irritating fascinations. Schweitzer went out of his way to visit a large statue of a man from the Congo. Moved by the dignity shown in the statue, he held imaginary conversations with it, even made excuses to go to the town of Colmar where it was stationed.
Your life will be filled with ideas and fascinations that don’t fit neatly into your work, your life or culture. At the least, following them could be fun. At best, they could signal your growing edge.
Two of the 20th century’s most popular products derived from heeding this principle. Velcro® comes from George de Mistral’s study of how burrs and seeds managed to stick so efficiently to his dog’s coat every time they walked in the woods. The idea for Post-it® notes flashed during a church service when choir singer Arthur Fry’s slip of paper marking his place in the hymnal fell out just when he was standing up to sing. During the sermon, he recalled how a colleague at 3M® had invented a glue that didn’t stick well, and he imagined using it to create a better bookmark. Others invented more uses for his product, like putting a favorite Schweitzer quote in a day datebook.
7. Expect to be guided not by one vision, but many. Make visioning a daily habit where you develop many abilities, work with many others, do many things. If you are called past current abilities — as Schweitzer was called to become a hospital builder in addition to doctor — then stretch your talents joyfully. Develop craftsmanship in one or more fields, so you can really get to know the depths of the field.
8. Do your work with such joy that others want to come help — and are inspired to their greatness. People came from around the world to serve without pay in Africa with Schweitzer. Then they returned to their own lives inspired to do more of what mattered to them. Just a few examples: Hugh O’Brien, a top TV star, founded a youth leadership training institute. William Larimer Mellon, Jr., used his inherited fortune to became a doctor and found a hospital in Haiti. (The hospital survived the major earthquake there in 2010.)
Frederick Franck, while setting up a dental clinic, discovered the elements of his own creative practice and the best-selling book, The Zen of Seeing. Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, the book that helped launch the environmental movement, dedicated her work only to Schweitzer. What colleagues and kindred spirits would love to help you vision and create your best work? How can you inspire others’ creative visions?
9. Be open to visionary insight any time, anywhere. Schweitzer’s life was full of transformative visionary insights, like the moment (after years of seeking his true work and visiting the statute in Colmar) when he picked up an article about the urgent need for the doctors in the Congo and knew immediately, “Yes! This is what I am called to do.”
There’s also the dramatic moment, after years of searching for a way to express his moral theology — and also write a book that would help support his work — when he had the breakthrough inspiration for what became Reverence for Life.
For a long time, the wisdom he sought had seemed trapped behind a mental iron gate and dense thicket. Then, during a service trip down river in dry season at sunset, his boat stopped to allow a herd of hippos to pass. Mentally, the iron gate opened, the dense thicket parted and the previously unconscious words, “reverence for life” flashed in front of him.
Like Schweitzer, all of us are blessed with the possibility for many visionary insights. They can come while we walk to the store, pet a cat, read a newspaper or in any other time or place. The only question is whether we will pay at attention to those insights (as the inventors of Velcro® and the Post-it® notes did) or whether we will ignore them.
10. Make visioning a daily habit. Too often when people talk about visionary inspiration, they talk about only the dramatic visionary moment, as when Schweitzer got his “I am called to be a doctor in the Congo” guidance or his “Reverence for Life” direction. Without the grounding of visioning habits, such as Schweitzer’s reflections by the statue of the man from the Congo, visionary flashes are rare, and they can easily become ungrounded, even dangerous.
Inspired by Schweitzer, why not develop your own everyday habit or operating system so you can notice many visionary possibilities?
What principles or habits in the above story speak to you?
What can you add from your own life or a favorite role model?
Your comments on this article are welcome.
copyright 2010 by Pat McHenry Sullivan, t/a Visionary Resources.
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copyright 2006, by Pat McHenry Sullivan