Rethinking “That which does not kill us”

by Kristin on June 26, 2012

in Love, family & community

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?

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  • Laura

    I think difficult experiences simply change us. Just last night I was talking about this exact topic with my wise friend who said “it changes your DNA,” and she’s right. I see it in my mind like passing through a huge xray machine and you come out on the other side looking the same but what’s inside is forever changed. Stronger? Maybe. But it could also be weaker, wearier, empowered, afraid, less tolerant, more tolerant, all of the above. When you go through a difficult experience your world view changes and what you draw from your core to navigate life is different than it was before. I think in every difficult situation there is an element of humbleness and a forcing of perspective – and that is where the strength lies.

  • stephanie

    My take on it is that it’s not the situation that makes you stronger — it’s you. The quote is just imprecise, but I do think we learn about ourselves, about our priorities for growth, and sometimes even find the motivation to take difficult steps because we’ve been through something difficult. But *you* always do the work, no one else does. And yes, it might be _after_ you’re left weakened, questioning, vulnerable. But I agree with Laura: the humility and shift in perspective draw out strength that was hidden before.

  • Eva Lyford

    We all know people who’ve gone through grueling ordeals in their lives and have seen them struggle. And I’ve seen people come back from that better, more fulfilled, happier – but they may also have new weak spots where they didn’t before. Consider the myths: Achilles’ mother’s fire didn’t kill him, and made him invulnerable (except for his heel) – but it doesn’t seem he was stronger as a result.  When bad stuff happens to you it is hard to judge it – it is easy to treat the effects as if they are marginal (though some people also exaggerate their problems, but that’s a different topic). I think Nietzsche may have been a bit of an optimist – thinking that even terrible things could have good effects, similar to the neurological phenomenon of the optimism effect. http://www.ted.com/talks/tali_sharot_the_optimism_bias.html and oh wow did I just call Nietzsche an optimist? Yikes.

  • http://wanderingnotlost.com Sophia

    Thanks for this post. It’s a nice adage to think that life’s hardships make us stronger. And for some folks, it may hold true. But as you alluded to, it takes someone with strong resolve to know how to weather those hardships. I don’t think that we leave hardships/breakups/divorces/setbacks unscathed. We may move forward, but not always as whole as when we set out. We could leave jaded, hardened and so vulnerable, at least for some time, that we sit in that space wondering, WTF just happened and how did I get there.

    What I’m finally realizing is that sometimes people just get dealt bad hands. No amount of prayer and aversion to risk-taking can guarantee that we’ll dodge sucky experiences and situations. We really only have control of our actions and thoughts and how we decide to respond, so the question is: what do we have to hold on to when things don’t go according to the best laid out plans. Faith in God? A strong community we can turn to? The realization that these are seasons in our life that don’t last forever?

    I’m sort of in this space and I think that by getting answers to the questions I have, I’ll be able to feel better and move on. But that’s probably not completely true. So I sit in this uncomfortable space long enough to remind myself that I don’t have all the perspective to see what the point of all of this is. If there is, in fact, a point. So I just have to get through it and hope that what waits on the other side of the experience will give me some hindsight.

    I agree with Stephanie: you have to be the one willing to do the work. But the work is easier when you have a community of folks to share that journey with.

  • Jen

    I know you will forgive the perpetual running connections, but there is much wisdom here from that perspective. Runners do a lot of pushing, time, muscles, distance, effort. But we also have to rest. Rest is just as important as building strength as effort. Maybe even more so. The work you did after your divorce is like a runner’s recovery day. You do not move on a recovery day, not for exercise. Your muscles have to repair themselves, just as your heart had to be mended.

    Too, I like this idea of what strength is? Sometimes strength is walking away. Sometimes it looks like surrender. Sometimes, it means not asserting a voice or an opinion when one is practically barging out of your face.

    You are smart. That is all.

  • Nicola

    I love this topic! Great post and great comments!

    I can see many examples that support the “not killed but stronger” phrase (talk about a paraphrase!) in my own life. And yet, I can see many examples that do not.

    Becoming a mother almost “killed me” or did kill the “me” that I was used to being for a good long time. When I “recovered” myself, I did find that I was stronger. Mainly because I was the same person, but one that had incorporated a whole new identity – mother – which seems to have added to my own sense of personal strength overall.

    When my parents divorced when I was a teenager, that almost killed me (at least emotionally). I think that I turned out ok, but I’m pretty sure that my emotional self is both stronger AND weaker than it was before. Stronger in that I know I can survive bad things (which does lend itself to confidence), weaker in that I am perhaps less emotionally open than I might have been – more guarded and less likely to trust or be vulnerable.

    I like the X-ray concept: you are changed but you look the same. So true! When I had a miscarriage, when my closest cousin died from leukemia at 32, I was profoundly different after these events but looked exactly the same! So maybe it’s more that what doesn’t kill you transforms you?

  • http://shawnsmucker.com Shawn Smucker

    Great questions, KT. In thinking through your post, I thought there are some obvious things that need to be considered:

    Obviously there are things that do not kill people, yet weaken them: weaken their resolve or their emotional strength or their physical well-being. Yet Nietzsche was a thinker, right? Certainly he would have observed people weakening in the face of adversity. So what was he getting at?

    After a few searches, I found the original quote: “Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich starker.” In other words, “What doesn’t kill ME, makes ME stronger.”

    My German is old and rusty, but I’m fairly certain that ‘mich’ is a first person pronoun. Meaning that Nietzsche’s quote is not an observed fact, but a personal philosophy. He’s not saying that what doesn’t kill people makes them stronger, but determining that, in his life, he has chosen to see difficult circumstances as strength-building.

    This sort of attitude requires a bit of creativity and 20/20 hindsight. My friend suffering through ALS is physically weaker. It hasn’t killed him yet. But instead of focusing on his physical weakness, he chooses to focus on how his faith has become stronger, or his relationship with his boys, or other things along those lines.

    I would imagine the same would hold true for you, Kristin. The experiences you have experienced may have weakened some areas, or left you feeling sensitive or insecure. But I guarantee there are parts of you that ARE stronger.

    Anyway, my two cents.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Laura, you pretty much nailed this: “When you go through a difficult experience your world view changes and what you draw from your core to navigate life is different than it was before.” Thanks for sharing your insights. I should have asked you to write a guest post. :)

    stephanie, yeah, that’s part of what I was trying to get at with my first “fine print” point (about a person’s foundational strength going into the hardship). I don’t think the hardship makes us stronger, it just exposes/leverages the strength that’s there.

    Eva, it’s funny, I was thinking of Nietzsche as being a bit of a “silver lining” optimist here, too. Because of *course* we want to think something good can come out of the bad, and we’ve all seen evidence that it can, indeed happen. (Btw, the neurological phenomenon of the optimism effect stuff that you linked to is super interesting. Thanks!)

    Sophia, this is exactly right, I think: “I don’t think that we leave hardships/breakups/divorces/setbacks unscathed. We may move forward, but not always as whole as when we set out.” It sounds like we’ve both had reason to think of this awhile. It’s hard to be where you are, but I think you’re asking all the right questions (like “what do we have to hold on to when things don’t go according to the best laid out plans?”) Grace & peace to you.

    Jen, your running perspective is super insightful here. I love the idea of a “recovery day” (or month or year)—it really fits in with my “in-between” post from last week, too, which I hadn’t really connected to this one but it makes sense that they’re linked up in my sub-conscious. And this? Yes. “Sometimes strength is walking away. Sometimes it looks like surrender. Sometimes, it means not asserting a voice or an opinion when one is practically barging out of your face.” Thanks for spilling out some of your wisdom here.

  • Kate

    I’ve been wondering along similar lines lately… specifically about the verses in James 1 (Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.)
    I would love to learn to be happy when things get hard, knowing & expecting that those trials will both bring glory to God’s name and make me a “mature and complete” Jesus-follower… but that kind of attitude-change would HAVE to be something God put in me. I can’t produce the kind of spirit that actually rejoices at difficulty/persecution.
    In fact, this verse is asking more of the reader than Nietzsche’s quote… Nietzsche says only that it makes you stronger, James says you should also be joyful. James also specifies just how you will become stronger: you gain perseverance, and that eventually makes you mature and complete.

    How do you think this verse and the Nietzsche quote interact?

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Nicola, your life examples are so insightful here! I love this: “…I was the same person, but one that had incorporated a whole new identity – mother – which seems to have added to my own sense of personal strength overall.” It creates a picture of adding layers and complexity to something that is already solid and formed. And I think this “both-and” example of how hardship makes us both stronger and weaker is spot on: “I’m pretty sure that my emotional self is both stronger AND weaker than it was before. Stronger in that I know I can survive bad things…weaker in that I am perhaps less emotionally open than I might have been – more guarded and less likely to trust or be vulnerable.” Yes.

    Shawn, that’s what I get for trusting Google (and not studying German)! I wonder, though, if Nietzsche was only referencing himself, even if he used the first person. It seems to me that as a philosopher, Nietzsche was always commenting on/making claims about the human condition, as a whole. I would have to find and read the whole context around this particular quote to know for sure, though. We always get in trouble when we pull a sentence out of context, but it’s been an interesting thing to discuss and think about together.

    Kate, you bring up a super interesting and difficult take on these trials we inevitably face in life. James has always been a book I’ve struggled with, and this verse gets at the heart of what’s tricky about it. On one hand, I feel frustrated because James sets up a challenge that feels impossible for me to meet! As you said, only God could create that kind of attitude change, because it sure doesn’t come naturally. And on the other hand, I feel suspicious of the whole premise. So many Christians use language that implies God *gives* us trials to make us stronger, and/or the more trials we face, the greater our status is as Christians. I just don’t believe that’s true (and I don’t think that’s what James is saying, but I know it gets interpreted that way). God wants us to learn from the consequences of our decisions, and he wants to meet us in the mess of the world, and redeem it, but the trials aren’t something to celebrate, like they’re gifts. (Now I’m curious to find the Greek word translated “trials” here—maybe it means the small hardships and struggle along the way, but not the pain and sorrow of serious illness, etc.?)

  • http://themoderngal.com The Modern Gal

    Maybe stronger isn’t the right sentiment. Maybe it makes you wiser? More seasoned? More wholly you? I’d still argue that though you’re stronger because of the work you did after your divorce, the divorce set you on that path. The tough things in my life haven’t necessarily made me fully happier — I still occasionally feel bitter about them — but they have helped me more fully realize who I can become.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    The Modern Gal, I like how you put this: “…they have helped me more fully realize who I can become.” And I like that you differentiate between being better off and be “happier.” Those are not always the same things!

  • Dave R

    Nietzsche had a debilitating mental illness in his later years. It didn’t make him stronger. In fact, others had to take over his affairs for him as he gradually declined. Near the end of his life he had a series of strokes that made him weaker, physically and mentally, and he died some time after. So much for his quote.