Rabbi Harold Kushner is probably best known for his 1981 book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. In that text he describes his son Aaron’s journey through progeria, rapid-aging syndrome, and how that experience profoundly affected Kushner’s relationship to religion, God, and his congregants. Kushner has written a number of books since, and I happened upon this, his most recent, published in 2015, in a book catalog I received in the mail. Intrigued by the title, I was curious what essential life lessons he had to impart.
Kushner’s work is embedded in the Jewish faith, though his lessons are broadly applicable, drawing equally upon everyday people’s stories as well as religious texts and history for illustration. I’m a spiritual seeker who does not identify solely or specifically with any single faith tradition at this point in my life, though I feel there is something larger and greater than individual human desires, and I tend to imagine the sacred, in the broadest terms, as the realization of the combined forces of love and compassion in the world. So much of Kushner’s understanding of who and what “God” is (and isn’t) resonates with me, given that one of his truths is “God is Not a Man Who Lives in the Sky.” He writes, “To me, God is like love, affecting all people but affecting each one differently, according to who he or she is. God is like courage, a single trait that manifests itself differently as it is filtered through the lives and souls of specific individuals” (29). Love and courage: both profoundly human and deeply sacred.
I also like what Kushner says about prayer, especially in relation to illness. As I noted in my previous post on strength and letting go, getting attached to or assuming that only one specific outcome is acceptable can be emotionally dangerous. Kushner, wisely I think, opines that it’s the doctor’s job to “make sick people healthy,” whereas it’s “God’s job is to make sick people brave” (29). He notes in more detail later, “God’s role is to give us the vision to know what we need to do, to bless us with the qualities of soul that we will need in order to do them ourselves, no matter how hard they may be, and to accompany us on that journey” (34). “God,” in that description, manifests as both internal traits like strength and fortitude, and external supports like friends and caregivers. That is a vision of God I understand.
While I enjoyed the book as a whole, the two lessons/chapters I connected with most, as someone in the throes of a health challenge, were “God Does Not Send the Problem; God Sends Us the Strength to Deal with the Problem,” and “Leave Room for Doubt and Anger in Your Religious Outlook.” In the first, Kushner writes, “I find God not in the tests that life imposes on us but in the ability of ordinary people to rise to the challenge, to find within themselves qualities of soul, qualities of courage they did not know they had until the day they needed them” (43). Again, he focuses on traits at once spiritual and humane, and our ability to access them through grit and grace.
In the later chapter on doubt and anger, Kushner explores another theme close to my heart, especially at this juncture in my life. I have always been a bit allergic to certainty, and he actively embraces the idea that we should raise questions, “admit our anger” when it arises, and affirm a “readiness to live with doubt.” To do otherwise means we’re avoiding truth and minimizing the complexity of any genuine relationship: “Accepting anger, ours and that of people close to us, has to be part of any honest relationship” (130), writes Kushner, and it’s only through acknowledging that the tough stuff is equally as valid as the good that we can love–that we can be fully present in any capacity, I would add–with our whole hearts.
Kushner’s claims that religion, ideally, should connect, rather than separate or divide, and that the best way to feel better about oneself is to find a way to help others, also ring true.
In short, there is much in this brief, readable volume (170 pages) to comfort and inspire. Happy reading!