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.