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How To Conquer Fear In Troubled Times


How does fear of losing a job or growing old impact our lives? We'll talk with best selling author Rabbi Harold Kushner about his newest book "Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World."

Rabbi Harold Kushner will speak at the San Diego Jewish Book Fair on Monday, October 19, 2009, 7:30 p.m.

ALAN RAY (Guest Host): You're listening to These Days on KPBS. I’m Alan Ray in for Maureen Cavanaugh. In the classic science fiction story "Dune," the sisterhood, known as the Bene Gesserit, has a prayer: The Litany Against Fear. It begins: "I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death..." Well, the truth is, we're all afraid of something, of failure, of the dark, of things that go bump in the night, that terrorists will get us, that we won't have enough money when we're forced to retire. We’re joined on These Days by Rabbi Harold Kushner. You may already know him as the author of the bestseller, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” He has a new book out. “Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World.” If you’d like to talk to him, you can join the conversation at 1-888-895-5727, 1-888-895-KPBS. Rabbi Kushner, welcome.

RABBI HAROLD KUSHNER (Author): Thank you very much. It’s a privilege to be here.

RAY: Now, why did you decide now to write a book about fear?

RABBI KUSHNER: Same reason I write all my books, I listen to people. I – Congregants bring me their stories when I’m out promoting my previous book. I listen to the questions afterwards, try and pick up what’s bothering people, where do they need help of a spiritual nature. And what I’ve been hearing recently augmented, of course, in the last year, year and a half, people are scared. People are scared because so many of the important things in their lives are out of their control. People are scared because the future is so uncertain and that quote from “Dune,” I would differ with that. If somebody could invent a vaccine against fear, I would urge people not to take it because a certain amount of fear is salutary. There are a – there are times we just need to be vigilant, we need to be on our guard. Fear was probably something that served our ancestors very well but there comes a point where if fear takes over, if it becomes our master rather than our servant, it diminishes our humanity, it makes us selfish, it makes us less imaginative, less creative, less charitable. And that’s really the problem I’m trying to help people with, when fear gets out of hand and makes you less of a person than you deserve to be.

RAY: How rational are these fears, not just in terms of what we see now but in terms of our perception of the past. And I ask that because I wonder if we really have less control now than we had 20 years ago. It didn’t seem, honestly, if we looked at what we had in life that we had that much control then.

RABBI KUSHNER: No, we have probably just as little control but the difference, Alan, is previous generations I don’t think grew up with this expectation that they deserve to be happy. The last generation or two have this sense of entitlement and when they don’t have their happiness, they get very upset and very concerned and they get this feeling—you’re hearing this so much in the public discussions—this feeling somebody is trying to take something away from me that I deserve. And that fear of being cheated, that fear of missing out on something, I think is behind a lot of what’s going on and a lot of the unhappiness that – the sense of unfulfillment going around.

RAY: How much – One thing that has changed in the last 20 years, how much of the fear you see and you hear about is actually fed by the constant repetition on the 24-hour news cycle?

RABBI KUSHNER: Oh, boy, you’re getting to one of my favorite subjects. And one of the reasons I enjoy being on a PBS outlet more than a TV station, yeah, that’s a – We were watching the news this morning. I was on one of the local shows. It was a perfectly lovely interview and a nice show but the news hour before it, there was a kidnapping somewhere and there was this balloon business in Colorado and you watch that and you think the world is really going to hell in a downhill slide. Something happens somewhere and it is played over and over again, and you get the sense that there’s an epidemic of kidnappings and an epidemic of robberies, an epidemic of automobile accidents, and you begin to think the world is really unsafe. It’s really no more unsafe than it’s always been, we just know about all these things better and they are endlessly repeated.

RAY: Well, if we read a little more history, if we understood how many people Genghis Khan actually killed, if we knew what it was like to grow up in the 11th century, we might have a different sense about this one.

RABBI KUSHNER: Oh, yeah. The objectivity would be that it was a much dangerous more time to be – a more dangerous time to be alive. It was a horrible time but people didn’t have any other expectations. They – all they wanted to do was have enough food for today and wake up alive tomorrow. No, I think the awareness of this, the, you know, the fact that we hear about these terrible things going on all over the world really makes us dread it.

RAY: You’re listening to These Days on KPBS. I’m Alan Ray in for Maureen Cavanaugh, and we’re talking with Rabbi Harold Kushner. His new book is "Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World." And you’re welcome to join the conversation at 1-888-895-5727, 1-888-895-KPBS. And, Rabbi, I wonder, too, how much of the fear you see is actually a reflection of a loss of trust in other people or in institutions?

RABBI KUSHNER: I think there’s some of that. That is, there was a time, you know, I’m going on 75 years old and I can remember growing up where you knew the people in your neighborhood, you knew the grocer, you knew the mailman. We’re living – we’re not even living in a world of strangers. Ten years ago, most of our encounters were with people we’d see once, buy something from them, never see them again. We’ve even lost that. Now it’s voice mail, now it’s, you know, press number 1 for an electronic recording of who you can talk to. There isn’t even that personal touch. And with more people living at home, working with their computers, we’ve even lost a sense of community at work. Yeah, there is the sense that we’re surrounded by strangers, we can’t trust them. You read about the Bernard Madoff scandal, you read about other people who are out there to cheat you, and it gets very frightening. But more than a loss of trust, I think the other half of that is loss of control. One of my real bugaboos right now is the sense of people of a certain age that technology is running away from them. I bought a new cell phone recently; I had to ask my grandson to program it for me. I’m very pleased that he could do that and I’m proud of his dexterity but there’s a part of me that says, no, knowledge ought to flow from the older to the younger, not the other way around. And there are certain verities that get lost when young people feel, hey, you got nothing to teach me because you don’t know about computers and iPods and things like that.

RAY: You’re listening to These Days on KPBS. You can join the conversation at 1-888-895-5727. Let’s go to the phones. Rosie in North Park, good morning. You’re on These Days.

ROSIE (Caller, North Park): Hello. Hello, Rabbi Kushner.

RABBI KUSHNER: Hello, Rosie.

ROSIE: I have a question and it is something that recently happened with me and I was wondering how you would respond to it. I was wondering when a person asks you what is wrong with you, what’s wrong, you know, and you say I’m afraid, I have a fear. And they say, well, tell me about it, and you express your fear but it – what it does is it – I guess it would spark their fear and you get a very unsupportive answer or a very negative response to this. So how do – how does a person express their fear, especially in a situation when someone is urging them to, but how do you do that and express it in a way that it doesn’t spark their fear?

RABBI KUSHNER: Well, first of all, I’m tempted, Rosie, to say you need a better choice of friends. Why would somebody ask you to talk about your fears and then find themselves depressed by it? It’s a good thing to be able to talk about your fears. Sometimes, depending on what the fears are, I’m dealing with a lot of people, for example, back east who are laid off, probably maybe 5% of my congregation, if not more, men are out of work, have been out of work for months now, and they want to talk about it. They want to find somebody who will be sympathetic. Sharing your fear is probably more helpful than dismissing it. I would be worried, Rosie, if people’s – asked you to talk about what’s frightening you and then said to you, oh, that’s silly, you have nothing to worry about there. No, you’re entitled to your fears. I mean, I don’t know what’s frightening you but, you know, there are things which we should be frightened of, there are things we ought to be concerned about out there. I don’t want people to dismiss them but at the same time maybe they think they’re helping you by just sharing in the emotion.

RAY: Okay, the question – apparently this person is not Rosie’s friend but her daughter, so the question then becomes how do you protect your children from the fears you have?

RABBI KUSHNER: From the fears you have? Just take them close, hug them, and say, yeah, this is on my mind, I’m concerned about it but I’m not frightened out of my skull by it. I think we’re going to see it through. I have some idea of what to do. I have some idea of where I have control, where I don’t have control, and don’t worry about this, we’ll be okay.

RAY: Ah, the perspective of parents. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS. I’m Alan Ray in for Maureen Cavanaugh. 1-888-895-5727. We’re talking with Rabbi Harold Kushner about his new book, "Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World."

RAY: You’re listening to These Days on KPBS. I’m Alan Ray in for Maureen Cavanaugh. And we’re talking this hour with Rabbi Harold Kushner. He is the author, you may know, of “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” some years ago. He has a new book out now, "Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World." You’re welcome to join the conversation. We’d be pleased if you did at 1-888-895-5727, 1-888-895-KPBS. Rabbi Kushner, we’ve been talking a lot, almost exclusively, about things we fear, we’re afraid of for ourselves. How much of what we fear is what we fear for others, say for our children? Or for our parents?

RABBI KUSHNER: Oh, I think that’s very high on the list of things that really scare us for the reason that I keep going back to when I look more closely at fears, that our control is so limited. I think that’s behind a lot of fears. It’s behind the fear – I mean, look at what happens, for example, when there’s a plane crash with loss of life and thousands of people who are planning to fly decide to drive instead, although the odds of being injured in an automobile accident are a couple of hundred times higher than in a plane crash because you have this illusion of control. Yeah, we fear for our children because we want to keep them safe but we know we have limited control over it, that it would be very bad, very damaging for our children if we hovered over them all the time and there are times where they have to be out of our sight and there are times where we just have to trust them when they go out on their own. And it’s part of the pain of being a parent. I believe, for example, in Chapter III of the Book of Genesis in the Bible, when God says to Eve, in pain will you bring forth children, I’m convinced He’s not only talking about the actual act of giving birth, He’s talking about the pain of being a parent, that the real pain is not—and I don’t mean to offend any of our women listeners who have actually given birth and you know a whole lot more about it than I do—but I think the real pain of being a parent is not the moment of giving birth but it’s the first time you give your daughter the car keys and you wait up until 11:00 in the morning and that night – or, one in the morning to make sure she gets home safely.

RAY: I told my daughter a story just the other day. We were talking on the phone. That when she was born, and she was my first, I told my wife that I wasn’t going to be driving on the freeway anymore because I didn’t want anything to happen on the freeway with the little one. Anyway. You’re a man of the cloth, how does religion deal with fear realistically? How has it historically? And how much has religion been a force for fear?

RABBI KUSHNER: I will confess to my embarrassment that sometimes religion just messes us up badly. The idea of the fear of God, which, by the way, is not really a Biblical phrase, the term in the scriptures translated as fear of God really means reverence, a sense that there is some things which are wrong. But the idea of scaring people, it’s a cheap trick. For a clergyman to use fear, images of hell fire, images of a wrathful God, it’s like a teacher who threatens physical punishment. It’s like a parent who threatens a spanking. It’s what you do when nothing else works and it’s a confession of failure. No, people who are scared, that’s bad religion. They’ve – One of the reasons that my first book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” has been so helpful to millions of people is it says to them God is on your side, God is not trying to punish you for something. Don’t go back and try and calculate what you deserve to be punished for because that’s not the way it works. No, religion can be a source of comfort, first, the assurance that God is not doing this to you. Twenty years ago this week, I was in San Francisco for the Loma Prieta earthquake. I was there in the middle of it. And one of the things I had to contend with afterwards were all the preachers, who are God’s police force, and who said, well, of course, San Francisco, all those gays and all those hippies and all those terrible people. I was there. I saw where the bridge collapsed and I saw where the fires were and they were not in the gay neighborhoods. The world doesn’t work like that. I had the same thing happen in New Orleans. The idea that God is there to comfort and, most importantly, God is there to send you people. I went down to New Orleans a year after Katrina. I spoke to this church packed with people. I said to them, God didn’t do this to you. God is kind; nature is not. God did not send the hurricane to wash away your city. God sent the people who risked their lives to save you when you were up on the roof trying not to drown. God inspired thousands of college kids to give up their spring break and clean up the mess of Katrina rather than partying on a beach in Ft. Lauderdale. This is what God does.

RAY: Maybe the fear is the fear of randomness. Ian in Solana Beach, good morning. You’re on These Days on KPBS.

IAN (Caller, Solana Beach): Good morning. I wanted to point out something that may be very pertinent to our area.


IAN: And that is that I have a house in Baja, California, Mexico, and I’m constantly bombarded by people who say aren’t you afraid to go to Mexico, that you’ll be kidnapped, that you’ll be robbed, that you’ll be murdered. And it is the safest thing that I can do. I mean, I have neighbors who drive – Debbie just drove back to San Diego at night on – and crossed the border without any problem at all. And this, unfortunately, the media is causing the economy of Mexico to be very badly affected because of this.

RABBI KUSHNER: Well, I think Mexico has more than its share of problems and there’s no reason for anybody to add to them. You’re absolutely right. But, no, it’s – it is – I’m not sure whether it’s the media or whether it’s our readiness to respond to this but, absolutely, they build up these fears. I face that one when I go to visit Israel and people say, you’re going to Israel? What about those terrorist attacks? And are you going to ride the buses there? And what about people hijacking the plane? And I said, well, you know, that doesn’t happen. Statistically, this is very, very safe. But people, because we are so vulnerable to the story we’ve heard, the incident that gets played up, it colors a lot of things. And, of course, Ian, the worst thing that could possibly happen was, God forbid, something would happen to you one day and all of those naysayers would say, you see, we told you so, you were so foolish to trust it.

RAY: Rabbi Kushner, it’s been a pleasure.

RABBI KUSHNER: Thank you very much. I enjoyed talking to you and to your listeners.

RAY: Thank you, sir. Rabbi Harold Kushner. His new book is "Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World." And Rabbi Harold Kushner will speak tonight at the San Diego Jewish Book Fair. He talks at 7:30 at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center. You can get more information by going to

RABBI KUSHNER: Actually, it’s at Temple Solel.

RAY: I’m sorry? It’s moved?

RABBI KUSHNER: It’s moved to Temple Solel in Carlsbad.

RAY: Thank you. Rabbi Harold Kushner, and that’s at 7:30 tonight. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

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