Summary of Keynote Presentation at the Public Health and Human Services Conference
given by: Harold S. Kushner
By: Kyle Elden
A week ago I attended a conference titled “Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World” and it was an enlightening experience. Harold S. Kushner was the keynote speaker – he is a rabbi and the author of many books, one of which is “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” His keynote address was riveting, thought provoking, and spirit-lifting. His message was about fear - how fear and anxiety often help us because they make us uncomfortable enough to enact necessary change. In a later workshop there was discussion about two kinds of fear, one of which is healthy does exactly this, motivates us to change – to let go of what does not work and try something new. And the other fear is unhealthy and does the opposite; it keeps us stuck and has us clinging to our old ways and resisting necessary change. This reminds me of the Einstein quote “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Oh but how often we find ourselves insanely and unconsciously re-enacting the same dysfunctional patterns.
Kushner outlined the way in which we can cope with fear and avoid having it take over our lives. First, he stated two truths about the difficult things we face. The first, actions have consequences. Sometimes things are happening to us as a direct result of our thinking, behavior, actions, and choices and we need to be experiencing the consequence so we can learn from and modify ourselves so we don’t continue dysfunctional patterns. The second, not everything is about “me” – sometimes what happens to you is just simply not your fault – there exists bad (or simply selfish and careless) people, bad luck, bad weather and the like.
Additionally, he offered three guiding factors that come directly from Psalm 27 which begins:
1 The LORD is my light and my salvation—
whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the stronghold of my life—
of whom shall I be afraid?
Kushner identified that we have available to us three things to turn to which can help us cope with fear so it doesn’t take a stronghold on our lives, and that is light, salvation, and strength from God.
When describing light he stated that light can balance darkness, it can make something less frightening. Like a little child afraid of the dark, using a nightlight can make all the difference and enable them to get the rest they need. Therefore, it would behoove us to be mindful about bringing light into our lives, about utilizing the resources within us. Whether a spiritual practice, a hike in nature, laughing with friends, therapy, exercise, or going to church, we can intentionally find ways to bring light into your our lives to counterbalance darkness and distress.
Kushner explains that salvation in the Old Testament does not have the same meaning as in the New Testament, so in this Psalm it is referring to salvation in the form of people coming to our rescue. Often what saves us during difficult times is other people. When we have people in our lives that are there for us, that love us, cherish us, and can hold us we can cope with difficulty and devastation and come out on the other side stronger, more whole, and knowing we are loved. In addition, other people help us feel less alone in what we are facing. How often does it occur that someone presents in our lives that is going through or has been through something similar and leaves us recognizing we aren’t so isolated after all. Whether it’s grief over a difficult loss or feeling bad and ashamed because you’ve made a huge mistake in your life or have hurt another person, it’s likely you are not the only one who’s ever been in this position. We are thus encouraged to be aware of and notice the way in which we are provided for through the people in our lives that are there for us. As a word of advice, Kushner prompted us to fill our lives with people who “cherish you and see you as beautiful” ~ I think that is a good standard to set for who we choose to have in our lives.
An important point he made in the salvation section is that what people fear most is being rejected. He thus gave “rejection advice” as follows:
- Sometimes smart people make mistakes.
- Sometimes smart people get it right even if you don’t like it. It may actually be a blessing/gift (i.e. you never do anyone a favor by staying in or keeping someone in a relationship or a job that isn’t right for them) ~ that person might just know something you aren’t yet aware of about goodness of fit.
- Never let someone else’s opinion determine what you think about yourself.
Finally, Kushner discussed the need for strength from God. He stated we need a special kind of strength to cope with difficulties and the fear associated with that. He describes that God is like a mirror reflecting back to us a great and unconditional love; however, people looking into the mirror see different faces based on their perspectives and personal experiences. He asked the question: what if we could learn to see ourselves in God’s mirror? This is the type of strength we gather from God which helps us see beyond the surface (our fear-based perceptions of ourselves and situations) and recognize our own beauty and worth.
More than being afraid of death, Kushner explains, people are afraid of wasting their lives. Therefore, create a meaningful life where you are cherished and loved and you likewise cherish and love those around you. He tells us to “let people know what they mean to you!” Further, he points out that there is no gravestone that states “Awesome CEO” or “Always Drove a New Car” – so, contemplate what is important in life and where you are investing your time, energy, and resources.
To close he points out that the sentence that is most often spoken in the bible is “fear not” or “don’t be afraid” and although there are valid things to be afraid of and we will endure unavoidable suffering and difficulty as humans, we do have resources within us (light), people around us to reach out to (salvation), and strength from God to help us cope.