Thursday, June 10, 2010

“Conquering Fear”

Harold S. Kushner became widely known after the publication of his best-selling book When Bad Things Happen to Good People (1981). Last year, Kushner (b. 1935), an American rabbi aligned with the progressive wing of Conservative Judaism, published Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World, his twelfth book.
Kushner’s fine book was the topic of discussion yesterday at Vital Conversations, a group that meets once a month at the Antioch Mid-Continent Library. Alan Cohen, Rabbi Emeritus of Beth Shalom, a Conservative Jewish congregation in Kansas City where he served as senior rabbi from 1989-2008, and now Director of Interreligious Affairs at the Jewish Community Relations Bureau, helped facilitate the discussion.
After declaring in the opening chapter that the “eleventh commandment” is “don’t be afraid,” Rabbi Kushner deals with the fears of terrorism, natural disaster, rapid change, the self-destruction of humanity, rejection, growing old, and death. In the final chapter he asserts that “hope and courage are the will of God.”
As Kushner says at the end of the first chapter, “Our goal should never be the denial of fear but the mastery of fear, the refusal to let fear keep us from living fully and happily” (p. 24). Earlier in that chapter he wrote, “Our goal should be to recognize legitimate fears, dismiss exaggerated fears, and not let fear keep us from doing the things we yearn to do” (p. 11). Those are wise words.
The chapter I most identified with was the seventh, on the fear of growing old. Kushner rightfully, I think, states that “the most terrifying aspect of growing old is the increased risk of serious, debilitating illness. We worry that we will lose the ability to do the things that we enjoy as well as the things that define us” (pp. 125-6). I don’t know that I am “terrified” at that prospect, but it is definitely a concern.
Thus, I like the words he attributes to Mel Zuckerman (founder of the fitness resort Canyon Ranch): “My goal is to die young—as late as possible.” That statement was probably adapted from the British anthropologist Ashley Montagu, 1905-99, who wrote in 1956, The idea is to die young as late as possible.” That is an appealing idea, and a goal I, too, want to embrace.


  1. The first comment received was from a Thinking Friend whom I do not know personally. He wrote,

    "Love it!!! Very succinct 'book review'....
    I am going to purchase a copy of Kushner's book and read it."

  2. It is an interesting observation -- do not be afraid as being the "eleventh commandment". My mind flits back and forth, remembering the many times that this message is communicated by God in the Bible. Something to think about today and tomorrow. I may get Kushner's book after I finish reading yours!

  3. What an apropos subject for our time - and all time. One of the two greatest sins, from my perspective, which I face. At the end of the book of the Apocolypse, leading the group of those cast into perdition are the cowards. Christ himself took aim at the fearful in his parable of the talents.

    The subject of FEAR, its daily ramifications, and proactively addressing it, needs to be a priority - especially in my life. This is a superior additional commandment to those I grow up with: Thou shall not smoke, drink, dance, play cards. This has the ring of godliness.

  4. A relatively new "Thinking Friend," a pastor in the Kansas City Northland, made the following comments in an e-mail to me this morning:

    "A nicely rendered piece, Leroy.

    "Having not read the book, I am unsure of the relevance of the following, but I hear Jesus asking of his friends--why are you afraid--or telling them--don’t be afraid.

    "I'd like to think that the Gospel is about a perfect love that casts out fear (1 John).

    "I'd like to believe that as I allow Divine Love to penetrate me to the core--it replaces even my deepest fears with serenity.

    "This is probably not something that happens completely in this life but I'd like to believe it can happen profoundly."

  5. Here are comments received from my esteemed friend, Dr. Glenn Hinson:

    "I like that, Leroy--'die young as late as possible.' I've felt fortunate to have had few health problems even as I approach 80. I'm thankful to have learned from Douglas Steere how important it is to look at life from the bright side rather than the dark side."

  6. I think the idea of dying young as late as possible hit the nail on the head! I often think that my struggle to resist fear is not the fear of death but the fear of living beyond what continues to give quality to life. I am familiar with Rabbi Kushner's book, and I reflect on its contents often. Vicki Price