Don’t be afraid

Harold Kushner offers a ‘whatever works for you’ philosophy for learning to live with fear.

Conquering FearBy Harold S. Kushner | Alfred A. Knopf | $23.95 | 173 pages
Instead of Conquering Fear, this book should perhaps have been called “Living with Fear,” for that’s what it’s all about: Not so much ascending above fear, but learning how to live despite it.
Early on, Kushner, a Conservative rabbi perhaps best known for his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, makes it clear that fear is an inescapable, and perhaps essential, part of our lives. It even has a function, making us act for our own safety. And sometimes it is even controllable enough to be pleasurable: After all, horror movies and thrillers have a dedicated following.
This, Kushner’s 12th book, starts with a chapter entitled “The Eleventh Commandment: Don’t be Afraid.”
Kushner recognizes that everyone is scared of something, sometimes. As a psychologist acquaintance who saw me reading the book quipped: “Thank heavens for fears. They’re very good for business.”
Kushner’s aim is to help readers “recognize legitimate fears, dismiss exaggerated fears and not let fear keep us from doing the things we yearn to do.” This book will not put psychologists out of work, but it might help someone over a tough spot. Probably the best time to read it is not when you’re going through a difficult time and feeling vulnerable but before, so that you feel able to tackle those emergencies that inevitably happen in life.
Well researched and drawing on both religious and secular teachings and from around the world, it is nonetheless the book’s true stories and Kushner’s own experiences that keep it together. Although he refers to the challenges of raising – and losing – a chronically ill child, this is no tearjerker and most of the incidents Kushner refers to are easier to identify with: fear of losing a job or of divorce, the fear of illness and aging, the fear of terror attacks and natural disasters, the fear of change in a technological driven world and even the fear of losing our looks.
Kushner doesn’t have a trite answer to readers’ fears but more a “whatever works for you” philosophy, be it prayer, learning about what it is that scares us or finding a support system. Above all, he advocates taking control of our own lives.
Not all sections will be equally relevant to all readers although they are each illuminating in their own way. The section on terror, for example, possibly reads very differently to the non-Israeli who hasn’t already been through the first and second intifadas and the post-Oslo terror war.
“How then shall we confront a world marred by the threat of terrorism?” Kushner asks. “Much as we deal with the threat of other dangers, by seeing the danger posed by terrorism realistically but optimistically. We should be alert but not frightened, vigilant but not paranoid.”
In the chapter on natural disasters, very much in the headlines as I read this book, Kushner explains his distinction between God and nature to help people cope with the need to make sense of such suffering and destruction. “God is moral; Nature is not. Nature is blind, uncaring, incapable of distinguishing between good people and bad ones, between the deserving and the undeserving...
“A falling rock is simply obeying the law of gravity... A speeding bullet will cause serious injury to anyone it strikes... Responsibility lies with the person who threw the stone or fired the bullet itself and not with God who established the unchanging laws of Nature that do not make exceptions for nice people.”
One way of tackling such fears is to take action in your own personal environment, he suggests.
In another chapter, with the subhead “The fear of rejection,” Kushner interestingly ties “loss of job and loss of love,” making the point that they are “the two primary sources of emotional nourishment we need to feel cherished and to live our lives with enthusiasm and confidence.”
Kushner relates a number of anecdotes and incidents showing how people suddenly hit with loss have learned to use the inner strength they didn’t even know they possessed to rise above it, and in many cases to use the loss as an opportunity to reassess and redirect their lives. “You don’t have to be a prisoner of your past. You can be the architect of your future,” he writes.
And Kushner tackles the fear of death: “Death does not negate the meaning of our lives. Death helps define our lives. Remember, the word ‘define’ means to ‘set boundaries.’ Death marks the end of life in the same way that a period marks the end of a sentence. It doesn’t rob the sentence of its meaning; it clarifies what the meaning of the sentence is.” A “life doesn’t have to be remarkable to be meaningful,” he notes, and it is clear from his anecdotes that Kushner believes every person has a story.
Throughout the book, readers see that, “as psychiatrist Victor Frankllearned from his years in Auschwitz: You cannot control what happens toyou, but you can always control how you respond to what happens toyou.”
And, as Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, also quoted, put it: “The whole worldis a narrow bridge and the main thing is not to be afraid at all.”