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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Related articles:

https://fullcatastropheliving.wordpress.com/2012/02/09/albert-schweitzer-on-the-sleeping-sickness-of-the-soul/

http://realtruelove.wordpress.com/2013/02/28/distraction-love/

http://mindfulbalance.org/2013/09/20/training-the-heart/

http://mindfulbalance.org/2013/09/06/22491/

http://www.humansofnewyork.com/post/60976988930/if-you-could-give-one-piece-of-advice-to-a-large

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The Last Taboo—Thinking Honestly and Deeply About Oneself and One’s Life


We arrive here with few clues as to where we came from, and even fewer clues as to where we’re headed.  Our time here on earth is but a fleeting tiny little stopover; the only certainty before us is death.   Whether we claim to be religious or nonreligious matters little.  I think what matters more, much much more, is the extent to which we have reflected on our lives and acted upon the fruits of those reflections with sincerity, commitment and courage.

Dealing directly with philosophic and religious issues of death and dying and the meaning of life brings us face to face with what may be the last and greatest taboo of American life.  These subjects are seldom the topic of conversation at the typical American dinner party, or even in intimate discussions among friends, where people are much more likely to focus on work, family problems, the economic and political issues of the day.  Discussions about moral and spiritual questions are seldom encouraged; and if you do bring them up, you run the risk of offending your host or putting off people.

This aversion to spiritual and existential matters makes sense.  We want answers, not problems; and we certainly do not want uncertainties.  And I think we realize—even if perhaps only subconsciously—that when dealing honestly with spiritual and moral questions we are dealing in mysteries, the insolubility of which we find deeply discomforting and unsettling.

And much of what we call daily American life is about this discomfort and the manifold ways we seek to deny or avoid it—a problem that is further magnified by the many subtle and not so subtle ways that our capitalistic advertising-driven society discourages reflection in order to promote impulsivity and spending and encourage consumption.   As Roy Walsh, a psychiatry professor in San Francisco, put it—

“[Y]ou can see that basically our lives are, to a large extent, spent in avoiding confrontation with ourselves. And then you can begin to make sense of the enormous amount of our culture’s daily activities that 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.”

(Abridged and adapted from Phillip L. Berman, “The Search For Meaning,” pp. 5-6)