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Amy Johnson Jan 24, 2011

A Reverence For Life

"Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."
-Albert Schweitzer

Happy belated birthday to Albert Schweitzer (14 January 1875 – 4 September 1965), humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize winner (1952). Schweitzer was ahead of his time, his words and beliefs still, more than a century later, continue to remind us that a “cherished life” extends beyond human beings. The beauty of Schweitzer’s value system was that he believed that all life, regardless of how seemingly insignificant, is still life. This revelation came early to Schweitzer when, as a youth, and despite his apprehension, he accompanied a friend to shoot birds with rocks and a slingshot. There they saw small sparrows sharing their melodies. As young Albert reluctantly readied his slingshot, the local church bells suddenly rang out. He took this as a sign; the sparrows were not perched on the tree limb for his entertainment, but were rather magnificent manifestations of life.

Schweitzer rejected the idea of “anthropocentrism” – the notion that humans are the center of life on earth – believing instead that life forms are only ‘different’, rather than hierarchical. While in Equatorial Africa, the phrase “Reverence for Life” came to him, which he made a tenet of his ethical schema.

Working as a therapist, what struck me most in his writings was this quote from Civilization and Ethics: “reverence for life does not allow the scholar to live for his science alone…it does not permit the artist to exist only for his art…it refuses to let the business man imagine that he fulfills all legitimate demands…it demands from all that they should sacrifice a portion of their own lives for others.”

As counselors, ‘sacrificing a portion of our lives for others’ often comes naturally. Is it enough, however, to limit that to the human species? By honoring all life, we are nurturing empathy. When we see a distressed animal, for example, rather than dismiss it outright, and instead contemplate their plight with compassion and desire to help in some way? This continuous awareness and compassion would become firm in our foundation. “Reverence for life” creates a system of values making relationships exclusively with humans incomplete. Schweitzer adds to this thought, “We are brothers and sisters to all living things and owe them the same care and respect we wish for ourselves.”

Finally, respecting animals allows us to broaden our scope of practice to include the use of other species in therapy sessions. For many of our clients, animals provide a safe environment for clients to practice unconditional love, compassion and empathy which can later be used to more intuitively use their theory of mind. This topic is often debated and I would love to hear from you, as counselors, your thoughts on this subject.

I leave you with this quote from the birthday boy:

“A man is ethical only when life, as such, is sacred to him, that of plants and animals as that of his fellowmen, and when he devotes himself helpfully to all life that is in need of help.” (Out of My Life and Thought, p. 188.)

Amy Johnson is a counselor, lecturer, founder, and program director of the non-profit organization, Teacher's Pet: Dogs and Kids Learning Together.

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