What doesn’t kill you…
Most people are familiar with this most famous aphorism of Friedrich Nietzsche’s:
‘What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.’
There’s a common criticism of this idea – it’s that it’s clearly wrong. Nietzsche seems to be suggesting that experiences of adversity or suffering toughen us up. But, people object, what about irreversible paralysis? Or losing a child? Or conditions like chronic depression? Do these make a person stronger? It seems highly improbable. In these cases, quite the reverse may be true. The experience makes us weaker, more vulnerable, more miserable.
NO PAIN, NO GAIN
Though it is difficult to argue against such extreme cases, there is an intuitive appeal to Nietzsche’s idea. We want our pain to have meaning; to be for some greater good. Ideally, our suffering should help us grow as individuals.
We all know that most desirable things in life require an investment of suffering or, at the very least, hard work. If you want to be financially secure in retirement you will need to put in the hours, earn, save and invest, denying yourself many everyday pleasures along the way. If you want a high status job you will need to spend a great deal of time studying and taking exams, giving up leisure time that you could otherwise enjoy. If you want to lose weight or build muscle or beat your personal best in a marathon, demanding exercise regimes need to be implemented – ‘no pain, no gain’ as it is said.
In these cases, the pain and unpleasantness is hardly in the catastrophic realms of those previously mentioned and there is little risk of actual being killed. But then actually being killed may not have been exactly what Nietzsche had in mind.
An alternative translation of the aphorism from the original German is something like ‘What does not destroy me, makes me stronger.’ This reading might be more appropriate and open to far fewer objections. Consider that though irreversible paralysis, losing a child and chronic depression do not kill you, they can most certainly destroy you. And if you refuse to let them destroy you, whatever that might mean, well… could it be that they might make you tougher in some respect? On this reading the aphorism looks less shaky.
But let us stick with the popular version – ‘what does not kill me…’ and, in particular, the word ‘kill’. Nietzsche was, perhaps above all else, a consummate rhetorician (a lover of powerful, eloquent language, as it were). He delighted in the striking turn of phrase. Academic philosophers frequently lament that he sacrificed accuracy, specificity and well-structured arguments in favour of literary flair. Dramatic overstatement is a well-used rhetorical technique. This, of course, is the fundamental character of Nietzsche’s thought. He celebrates the virtues of style and passion and is highly sceptical about objective truth and even about the ability of human beings to communicate ideas accurately through language. For him, getting across the feeling can be more vital and important than the precision of the terms used.
So the power of the ‘what doesn’t kill me…’ aphorism is meant to be felt in the gut, not the head. Its ubiquity in our culture 130 years after Nietzsche set in down in Twilight of the Idols is a testament to its salience. If anything, it is becoming more popular over time. At the bottom of this post is a list of pop songs that contain references to it. I’m not going to enumerate all the books, films and TV shows too, as we have limited space, but who could forget this little movie reference:
It would be wrong, I contend, to take Nietzsche’s aphorism at its most obvious. What does not kill you might make you stronger when you broaden your understanding of what may actually be meant by the word ‘kill’.
Recall our previous post: Which do you most fear: Death or Life? There we discussed Otto Rank’s ideas about fear, both of life and death. Death in his existential sense is the experience of the self ‘disappearing into the background; becoming lost in the crowd of humanity; an insignificance. We ‘die’, in a way, when we become indistinguishable.’
Taken a little further, death can be a metaphor for a diminishing of the self; a becoming smaller, becoming less significant. It is defeat and retreat from the trials of life. We die in this symbolic sense every time we are overcome by life’s challenges and shrink away in fear, pain or disappointment. When the bully crushes us, when we are humiliated, when what we have is snatched away, when we suffer injustices, when those we love let us down, when we give in to despair.
These experiences ‘kill’ us, and they do it by increments – like the infamous death of a thousand cuts. But if we refuse to allow these experiences to diminish us, if we get up, dust ourselves off, and keep moving forward; not yielding to bitterness; refusing to retreat after each defeat (and defeats are inevitable), then not only has the experience not killed us, it may have taught us a valuable lesson. It may even have increased our resilience to future defeats. Every scar can be a diploma from a school of hard knocks or a medal earned through courage in a battle lost.
If we can pull something positive, useful, even empowering - however small, out of every negative experience, then we can say, quoting Nietzsche’s aphorism in full:
‘Out of life’s school of war: What does not kill me makes me stronger.’
SONGS CONTAINING REFERENCES TO THE ‘STRONGER’ APHORISM
Kanye West, Stronger (2011): “That that don’t kill me, only makes me stronger”
Kelly Clarkson, What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger) (2011): “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”
Ed Sheeran, Drunk (2011): “What didn’t kill me/It never made me stronger at all”
Melanie C, Weak (2011): “Everyone else is saying, what don’t kill you makes you stronger”
Papa Roach, Kick in the Teeth (2010): “What doesn’t kill me only, will make me stronger in my head”
Monica, Still Standing (2010): “Whatever don’t kill make you stronger”
Blues Traveler, That Which Doesn’t Kill You (2006): “That which doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger"
Vanessa Hudgens, Promise (2006): “They say what doesn’t kill you can make you strong”
2Pac, Only God Can Judge Me (released 2005): (spoken) “Powers that judge cannot kill me/but only make me stronger”
Slipknot, Pulse of the Maggots (2004): “What doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger”
Eve, featuring Teena Marie, Life Is So Hard (2001): “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me strong”
Blues Traveler, Opening Credits for Roseanne (1996):“If what doesn’t kill us is making us stronger"
Anthrax, Fueled (1995): “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger
Megadeth, Skin O’ My Teeth (1992): “That that doesn’t kill me/Only makes me stronger”
Kiss, Betrayed (1989): “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
Bruce Willis, If It Don’t Kill You, It Just Makes You Stronger (1989) (album title)
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