Photo by Brett Jordan
My daughters have taken to begging for pop radio whenever we get in the car. I’ve decided if I have to listen to music that annoys me, I’m allowed to annoy my daughters with lots of questions about the lyrics. Yes, it’s payback, but with added value.
“What is ‘Call Me, Maybe’ even about?” I ask, the way uncool moms do, followed by, “What do you think about giving your number to someone you just met? Is that smart?” (I happen to have a particular aversion to “Call Me, Maybe,” mostly because it always seems to get played, even if we’re only in the car for five minutes. Once I’ve heard it, I’m sure to be humming it against my will for the next 10 hours.)
Another song that seems to have invaded my bloodstream is Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You).” At least the conversation possibilities around this song are more philosophical, although most middle school girls’ perspectives on the things that almost—but don’t—kill you is fairly limited. (No, cleaning the toilet didn’t ‘almost kill you,’ nor did that week at cross country camp.)
Even after I’ve peppered my girls with questions about whether adversity makes us “stronger” (and what “stronger” even means), I find myself turning back to the song—or more specifically the Nietzsche quote that inspired the song: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” I’ve always just accepted that quip as a good dose of optimistic empowerment, but suddenly it doesn’t ring quite true, like a smile painted on a clown that’s actually sinister.
Take my first marriage. Yes, I survived ten difficult years, but the marriage didn’t. And did a decade of struggle make me stronger? I don’t think so. It left me vulnerable, weary, and questioning so much I had thought was true. I am stronger today, but because of the work I did after those painful years, not because of them.
And take my father-in-law’s cancer. He is a survivor, and going through that experience did change him, without a doubt. But did cancer make him stronger? I think he would say the results are mixed.
The more I think about “That which does not kill us,” the more I am certain the phrase requires an asterisk, leading all gullible, silver-lining-loving humans (myself included) to the important fine print:
* The effectiveness of this treatment depends entirely on the foundational strength of the person going into the difficult circumstance.
* “Stronger” does not always equal ‘better” or “happier.” One’s assessment of the outcome is entirely subjective.
* Repeated hardships, especially in quick succession, may result in an outcome opposite to the one intended.
* It is not always possible to determine what might, in fact, kill you until it has, in fact, killed you.
Of course, the “killing” we’re talking about here does not necessarily refer to the death of a person. There are many things that can “die,” from relationships and dreams to values and beliefs. Sometimes the death is clean and sudden; other times the deterioration is incremental, an underlying misery that is difficult to locate and put your finger on in time to stop the bleeding.
I’m clearly still working through this, so I’d love to hear your thoughts (as always). Do difficult experiences always strengthen and toughen people? Is “toughening” always good? Can dealing with difficulty strengthen us in a way that love, support, and a sense of security cannot?