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Lahey: Choosing Personal Action

By age 29, Albert Schweitzer had constructed a life of comfort and respectability. He’d earned a Ph.D., worked as principal of a theological seminary, authored three books, and was recognized as Europe’s most celebrated organist and interpreter of Bach. In his thirtieth year, however, he learned that Africans were dying in vast numbers due to a lack of basic medical care. Rather than complain, donate money, or instruct his students to take up arms against this injustice, he chose personal action. In his words, “I decided I would make my life my argument.”

Schweitzer enrolled in medical school, and seven years later, landed in Lambaréné, Gabon - then a province of French Equatorial Africa – where he made his life his argument for the next sixty years. He served the people of Lambaréné until his death, and was buried next to his wife, on the grounds of the Albert Schweitzer Hospital.

Dr. Schweitzer believed everyone has their own Lambaréné, that one place they are called to serve. It is our duty and our privilege, then, to find that place.

Many people talk about the need for change in the world, but precious few set out to find their own Lambaréné and make their lives their argument. Recently, I met two such people.

A few days ago, I attended the Women Who Make a Difference Luncheon, an annual event to benefit the Lake Sunapee Region VNA & Hospice Pediatric Program, honoring two women who work to improve the lives of others in the Lake Sunapee and Upper Valley region of New Hampshire. This year, the committee honored Callan Rees and Charen Urban.

Rees, a junior at Mount Royal Academy, and Urban, a teacher in the Newport public school system, have indeed made their lives their argument by dedicating their time to school, community, and church volunteer projects, and have improved the education, health, and welfare of the people in their communities.

Dr. Schweitzer is not remembered as a great humanitarian because he abandoned a life of comfort for a more righteous or upstanding life. He is revered because, when faced with the question of how to best serve others, he answered with his life, the most eloquent and persuasive argument he could have made. It was lovely to be reminded that some find their Lambaréné here, in the small towns and villages of New Hampshire and Vermont.

Jessica Lahey is a teacher, speaker, and author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed. She writes the bi-weekly column The Parent-Teacher Conference at The New York Times and is a contributing writer at the Atlantic. You can find out more about her work at
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