Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World Author: Harold S. Kushner Publisher: New York: Alfred A. Knopf, A Borzoi Book, 2009 ISBN: 978-0-307-26664-4, 173 pages, Hardcover CDN $29.95
Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Fears. Every human being, at one time or another, encounters fears. The question is: How does one deal with such fears? Harold Kushner, who served as an active rabbi for many years, offers some of his experiences, knowledge and practical approaches to the subject at hand.
The volume consists of ‘First Words,’ and nine chapters. Each chapter focuses on a particular theme, and begins with at least one pertinent quotation.
There are over eighty references in the Bible instructing human beings not to fear. According to Rabbi Kushner, God does not want fear to dominate our lives; hence he gives us the Eleventh Commandment—“Do not be afraid.” This means, among other things, that: “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)
If readers are familiar with any of Rabbi Kushner’s previous books, they will recall that he casts the literary net far and wide, drawing on an array of sources, including: the Bible, the Talmud, rabbinic stories, contemporary psychology and literature among them. This volume continues in that vein.
In chapter after chapter, the author counsels his readers not to be paralyzed by their fears. Rather, the best way to handle fears is to face them and try to overcome them.
For example, Viktor Frankl told his patients, “Go out and do what you are afraid of. Expect the worst to happen.” When they did it and the worst did not happen, he would say to them, “There, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” (p. 168) Of course there are some exceptions to providing such counsel, especially regarding life-threatening behaviours.
My favourite story in this volume is one of hope inside a Nazi concentration camp, when Jews wanted to celebrate Hanukkah. Holiday celebrations were forbidden in the camp, but one man saved a bit of the bread from his evening meal, dipped it in grease from his dinner bowl, fashioned it into an impromptu candle, said the appropriate prayer and lit the bread. His son said to him, “Father, that was food you burned. We have so little of it. Wouldn’t we have been better off eating it?” The father replied, “My son, people can live for a week without food, but they cannot live for one day without hope.” (pp. 93-94)
This volume is written in accessible prose, and readers who are familiar with Rabbi Kushner’s previous books would most likely benefit from this one.