Albert Schweitzer on the “Sleeping Sickness of the Soul”

“[Y]ou can see that basically our lives are, to a large extent, spent avoiding confrontation with ourselves. And then you can begin to make sense of the enormous amount of our culture’s daily activities, which attempt to distract us from ourselves, from deep reflection, from deep thinking, from existential confrontation. There’s a wonderful phrase by the philosopher Kierkegaard, ‘tranquilization by the trivial.’ And I think our culture has mastered this better than any culture in history, simply because we have the wealth and means to do so.” – Roy Walsh, psychiatry professor, as quoted in “The Search For Meaning,” by Phillip L. Berman

I believe that the damned are, in one sense, rebels, successful to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.” – C. S. Lewis, from “The Problem of Pain

The Sleeping Sickness of the Soul” – Albert Schweitzer, abridged from pp. 77-81 of “Reverence for Life” (from a sermon he preached Palm Sunday, April 4, 1909, at the afternoon service at St. Nicolai’s Church)

What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world yet loses his own soul?” – Mark 8:36

A silent agony is brooding over the human race.

Many who outwardly look happy are really not happy in reality. For they know in their heart of hearts that they have forfeited the right to truth and goodness. They themselves have shut the door to what is sacred and pure. They have through their own conduct locked themselves out of the best that is within them. And only afterward do they realize how poor they have become. They stretch their hands out but do not reach goodness, beauty, and truth. They have cut themselves off from the world of goodness and beauty within them.

True joy means letting the noblest and purest thoughts within you inspire your lives.

It does not matter so much what you do: what matters is whether your soul is harmed by what you do. If your soul is harmed something irreparable happens, the extent of which you won’t realize until it will be too late.

But there are also others who harm their souls without being exposed to great temptations. These people simply let their souls wither. They allow themselves to be dulled by the pleasures and worries and distractions of life; they have lost all feeling for everything that makes up the inner life. It is just this creeping danger I want to warn you about.

You know of the disease in Central Africa called sleeping sickness. First its victims get slightly tired, then the disease gradually intensifies until the afflicted person lies asleep all the time and finally dies from exhaustion.

There also exists a sleeping sickness of the soul. Its most dangerous aspect is that one is unaware of its coming. That is why you have to be careful. As soon as you notice the slightest sign of indifference, the moment you become aware of the loss of a certain seriousness, of longing, of enthusiasm and zest, take it as a warning. You should realize that your soul has suffered harm.

Your soul suffers if you live superficially. People need times in which to concentrate, when they can search their inmost selves. It is tragic that most people have not achieved this feeling of self-awareness. And finally, when they hear the inner voice they do not want to listen anymore. They carry on as before so as not to be constantly reminded of what they have lost. But as for you, resolve to keep a quiet time both in your homes and here within these peaceful walls when the bells ring on Sundays. Then your souls can speak to you without being drowned out by the hustle and bustle of everyday life.


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