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Slices of Life: Maybe It Makes Us Weaker

Belmont Patch columnist Lisa Gibalerio wonders: Does “that which does not kill us” really make us stronger?

By Belmont Patch columnist Lisa Gibalerio

Of all the over-wrought clichés that constantly abound in song, speech and prose, this is the one that annoys me the most.

“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”  

This tired and trite expression, attributed to German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, has grated on me since I first encountered it.

First of all, off the top of my head, there are more than a few experiences out there that will neither kill us, nor make us stronger.

Let’s start with chronic illness. While chronic illness may eventually cut short a life, most of the time a person dealt this particular hand has to endure illness for many decades or, in some cases, over a lifetime. These people are often exhausted, acquiescent, discouraged, frustrated. But I know of no one who would claim that their chronic illness has made them significantly stronger. While there may be tiny kernels of emotional strength gleaned from the experience, I know of no one who would choose to have a chronic illness, say, in exchange for emotional strength.

They just deal with it, the best they can, day in and day out. There are good days, and not so good days, but mostly it seems to be about muddling through and mustering up the grace and grit needed to, well, keep on muddling through.

I think the same can be said about addiction, depression and poverty. These things may eventually kill, but do they ever really make you stronger? Mostly they seem debilitating, at core; something one copes with, battles with, works to overcome. Maybe there is some strength to be gained there, in seeking the possibility of overcoming, but how much, I wonder?

Still, I am weary of encountering this adage almost everywhere.

While driving home from my childhood house in Rhode Island recently, a tire suddenly blew out. I was going about 65 on 128 North. For a few seconds, I had no control over the car. Acting on instinct, I grasped the steering wheel, veered the vehicle toward the breakdown lane, and basically lucked out that I didn’t careen into another car.  

It was a frightening experience; its aftermath was a drag. And despite what a friend said to me after hearing about this incident, it neither killed me nor made me stronger.

Ditto my dad’s stroke-like incident of last year. Gratefully, it did not kill him. But is he stronger as a result of it? No.

What, then, was Nietzsche talking about?

Perhaps it’s true that we are made stronger by experiencing certain character-developing experiences. We all will be forced to deal with some pretty dreadful things in the course of living a life. (“Into each life, some rain must fall ...”)  Maybe it’s the grace and grit we draw upon to get through the rough times that do indeed render us emotionally stronger, when we – if we come out the other-side.

I don’t know. There might be something to it, after all.

I just wish it wasn’t tossed out there, so very often.

Rosalind Lerner Joffe January 23, 2014 at 04:26 PM
Thank you for writing this. I have lived with chronic illnesses for over 35 years and have spent the past 15 years working with people who live with debilitating chronic health problems. I have always resisted when people have suggested that illness has made me wiser or stronger. Rather, I encourage my clients to find the sources of strength that exist within them to meet the challenge. Not everyone has the capacity to do this but each of us can try. That's resilience.
Lisa Gibalerio January 23, 2014 at 09:06 PM
Thank you, Rosalind. It means a lot to me to know that this resonated with you. As a parent, resilience is definitely something I am trying to foster in my kids. Thanks again.
Pam Fitzgibbon January 29, 2014 at 02:38 PM
I too have suffered from chronic illnesses for almost 25 years. Plus, I have lived thru breast cancer and just 5 years ago, I developed migraines. Those were the straw that broke my back!! I don't think going thru all this has made me stronger. But it has made me much more empathic for others who are suffering. We all have our breaking points and we all have our own sources of strength, as Rosalind says. I hate that people are so judgemental of chronic illnesses suffers. I want to give up on most days but its my faith that keeps me going. I would like to see that saying go away too. AND all the other ones that make people who are suffering with chronic illnesses feel lesser of a person if they don't measure up and overcome! My best friend always says the same thing to me and others when we are sick.....what kind I do to help? Those are the best words anyone can say. No judgement, no lecture, just honest loving help.

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