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That which does not kill us makes us stronger. Or does it? 

When I wrote recently about my experience being bullied, a number of well meaning people noted, in Nietzsche style:
That which does not kill us makes us stronger

That is what we tell ourselves when we've gone through difficult times and survived. We want there to have been a purpose, a reason, why we suffered. That is what we tell others when we want to minimize their pain and their suffering. That is what abusers and bullies tell themselves when rationalizing their horrid behaviour.

But are they right?

In Life's Lies: That Which Does Not Kill Us Makes Us Stronger, Diana Hartman writes:
This platitude serves to ease the discomfort of the observer. It can only rightly be said by those who have been strengthened, and it can only rightly be said about themselves, not to others.

The truth is that some people never get into the second group. Those who do get there experience considerable weakness before strength develops.

This, I believe, is true. Not everyone makes it to the second group. Some people do end up taking their own lives as a result of their suffering. Some people end up depressed. Some turn to alcohol or drugs. Some become abusers themselves. And some find a way to rise above it all.  I think strength is built in the process of rising above it all. I believe that strength comes from within. I think those that are capable of finding that strength would have found it without needing to suffer.

I think that hard work makes us stronger. I believe that facing challenges head on makes us stronger. I do not think that being the victim of abuse, bullying, or neglect makes us stronger. Sarah Eberhardt wrote a paper for Bryn Mawr College called What doesn't kill you makes you stronger: true or false? A discussion of the effects of child abuse and noted that the chief danger to the brain stemming from abuse is the stress placed on fragile, developing tissue and that some of these changes can cause a permanent rewiring of the brain.  That is scary.

As parents, we worry. We may worry that our kids will be the victims of abuse or bullying. Or, alternatively, we may worry that our children have perhaps had too few worries, too little suffering, and that it leaves them exposed in this sometimes cruel world. Jake Aryeh Marcus from Sustainable Mothering wrote a moving post about her nightmare and her concerns as her son turned fifteen:
My son is bright and engaging. He chats up anyone who stands still long enough. He wants to know what you are passionate about and he wants to tell you about his favorite architect, the local community feud about the election of township commissioners, the quality of programming on BBC (we live in the US). My son trusts people until they show they can not be trusted.

When I was fifteen, the long battle between my divorced parents over who wouldn't have custody ended with both refusing to keep me. I was on my own, hiding from the social workers who would put me in foster care if they knew. From the age of fifteen, until my son was born sixteen years later, no family member gave me shelter.  Most of the time no one in my family even knew where I was and, as far as I can tell, none of them cared. My children are the only blood relatives I have lived with since I was the age my baby boy will be tomorrow.


Most days these differences between us make me feel relief.  I have spared him these things. But on days like today, covered with the sense memory of dreams like last night's, I fear for him. Who will he trust in his innocence? Have I, in keeping him safe, left him exposed?

Personally, as a parent, I want to give my children the drive to seek out challenges. I don't want them to shy away from difficult tasks. I want to teach them that strength is a virtue and one that they can build.  I think it is useful for them to learn to deal with conflicts with friends, to survive minor heartbreak, to make mistakes and then try try again. But I will do everything I can to protect them from experiences that I think could truly be hurtful, like abuse, like bullies, like neglect, like war. I will do this because we do not know which of our children will rise above and derive strength from horrendous experiences and which ones will spiral downwards.

The irony: About a year* after writing the words that form the title of this post, Nietzche suffered a mental breakdown, which spiraled into a serious mental illness, and eventually led to his death.  He, I guess, landed among those who never made it to the second group.

* Thank you to Twin Toddlers Dad from Little Stomaks for helping me find the year that Nietzsche wrote this quote.
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Reader Comments (26)

I've never particularly liked that saying.

I'm not too keen on "God doesn't give us anything that we can't handle," either.

My iffiness about the whole "God" thing aside, all you have to do is look around to see tons of people who are clearly NOT "handling" what they've been "given."

August 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterWhozat

yes, see, that is what people say when they are too scared to hear, or deal with the issues some others have faced. It's really hiding behind false security.. if they were to truly stop and listen, they might change their minds... but they never stop.. if they changed their minds, they might have to change a few other things in their lives.

August 25, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermary

I think it's interesting to note that the saying has actually been subverted. I believe it came from an Ernest Hemingway quote which was actually: "The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills." This is very different to "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" and I think I like it better for it.

August 25, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterzoey

Oops - just checked my dates and obviously Hemingway was drawing from Nietzsche and not the other way around!! Silly me. But I still prefer Hemingways version.

August 25, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterzoey

On that point, Nietzsche was full of sh*t. I remember, when I was diagnosed with cancer, my spouse responded to someone with, "What doesn't kill you, doesn't kill you."
And I would add that something that "doesn't kill you" can resurface many years after the fact.

August 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLaurie

Probably needless to say, I *hate* the expression "what doesn't kill us makes us stronger." No more true of the human psyche than it is of human bones. I have always joked, "what doesn't kill us, requires medication and years of therapy." In less tolerant (and more honest) moments, I think or say that, in my personal experience, what doesn't kill us makes us kill ourselves.

August 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJake Aryeh Marcus

That is very true Laurie. Both of cancer and of emotional trauma.

August 25, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

In the context of our children, I agree that this phrase is not responsible. However, in the context of adults, I think it has merit. I feel that it is being pulled out of context (not by you, but that historically, it has been pulled out) and wonder what its original surroundings were.

August 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGayle

Gayle - This is the text it is from (English translation of the original German): http://www.handprint.com/SC/NIE/GotDamer.html

Otherwise, in terms of context, it was written about a year before Nietzsche's mental breakdown.

August 25, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Thanks for that -- obviously, it'll be a long time until I'm a Nietzsche expert! lol But that would make for good discussion at a book club w/ a few drinks. I kind of like this one: '"All truth is simple." Is that not a double lie?'

Anyways, this is the best synopsis of him and his works I could find: http://www.websters-online-dictionary.org/Ni/Nietzsche.html and leads me to believe that the contemporary meaning of this phrase is a removed from his original theorem.

August 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGayle

Not everyone is strong enough to move past it, and we have no real way of knowing in advance who is or isn't. I think it would be better to focus on ending bullying rather than teaching kids to just get over it. Excent post, as always!

August 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSummer

I don't like that saying either. I first heard it when a cousin was being bullied by her dad at home because he said it would make her stronger in dealing with bullies at school. what BS!

August 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNiqi

I was also bullied as a child. (Ironically, I was the cute little blonde girl, but that didn't matter.) It happened in different places that we lived, in different schools, so I concluded that something must be inherently wrong with me was the reason that people didn't like me. I can say that it affected me traumatically and lasted for decades. Every time I have had a disappointment or rejection in life, I've struggled with the "something must be wrong with me" theme. I am only now, in my mid 40s, starting to get a good handle on it. Bullying is bad, it is wrong. It may be something a lot of kids do, but they shouldn't. I strongly support anti-bullying education and prevention efforts.

August 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCathy Y.

I think that folks in a difficult situation do want to feel like there is some reason, some purpose for the hardship and why not tell yourself it makes you "stronger"? It certainly shapes the person you will become, the person you are becoming. But what is stronger? If you do happen to survive, stronger usually means building walls, not trusting others, hardening your heart - is this really stronger? Or more protective? Many difficult situations do shape us, even help us, but there is never an excuse for abuse and abusive behaviours. Are we telling our children that if their partner abuses them it's for their own good because it will make them stronger? I surely hope not.

August 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRashel

What was supposed to go in that blank space was my vehement agreement with Rashel. So I will nod my head some more.

August 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJake Aryeh Marcus

Interesting and thought provoking as always!

As far as bullying is concerned, I think a bully is not interested in making you or your child strong. In fact, their interest is to defeat you into submission. Your suffering, or coming out as a stronger person, is irrelevant to them.

I think children are like rubber bands. Stretch them too fast, they will snap. But stretch them slowly as they grow, they will get stronger. This inherent strength will protect them from the bullies they will inevitably face in life. Parents will always have this dilemma - how much protection and nurturing to mix with the slow challenging.

In the end, you have to give them their own wings to fly. Sure there are vultures out there, but that should not prevent them from enjoying the skies of self discovery.

August 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTwinToddlersDad

True...and some rubber bands are stronger than others.

August 25, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

What a powerful post. Thank you for writing it.
i could not agree more with this:
"I think strength is built in the process of rising above it all. I believe that strength comes from within. I think those that are capable of finding that strength would have found it without needing to suffer."
I choose to look at the things i have survived in my life as being a part of my strength and growth - but that is something that comes from within me - i think this is actually a very rare thing to be able to do. i would not wish that on anyone, and certainly not on my children. i embrace their safety, peace and true childhood. They will find their strength and character without suffering.

March 2, 2010 | Unregistered Commenteralison kramer

One of my favourite experts on the subject is Barbara Coloroso. Found this little handout in quick google search: http://schools.hcdsb.org/mich/Safe%20Schools/Barbara%20Coloroso-%20The%20Bully,%20The%20Bullied%20and%20the%20Bystander.pdf

March 2, 2010 | Unregistered Commentergina

i'm 17 and sufering from schizophrenia and anorexia as a result of being bullied since i was four upwards...and iv'e made a personal promise to be successful in life and not to have children until later (very high teen pregnancy rate in my area) only time will tell if it's worked though alot of people who bullied me already have children or pregnant and not planning on getting jobs so it makes me feel a lil better.

November 16, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterlola

agree, we must teach our kids to see the world how it is.

January 11, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermister who that

[...] I’m fascinated by the saying: “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”  Why are some of us able to endure an endless obstacle course of pitfalls, where others stumble [...]

February 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPitfalls « Jeff Harrison

I've heard that phrase many times -- and surely I should be a rock by now. Or steel.
What interests and terrifies me is how life experience, from the get go, can and does alter brain function.
Life can suck. Our kids will not go unscathed.
What I tell mine (another catch-phrase) is it's not what happens, but how you respond.
There will be challenges. There will be hardships. Life is not fair.
But there are options, opportunities. And there is hope.

May 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPam @writewrds

I think strength comes from within, but can be bolstered considerably from without. Dealing with bullying for most means going it alone, and accepting fear and anxiety as the norm. I want my kids to be strong, and I'll do anything I can to give them the tools they need to deal with difficult situations and people. I'll also shield them as much I can from direct exposure to the shittiness of the world, but I want them to understand it exists, that it will almost certainly cause them pain at some point, and that there are many ways to mitigate that pain.

Mostly I want them to know they're not alone, and that they can draw on the strength of the people that care about them to bolster their own when they need it.

May 8, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterkev

Yup, I hate that one too, for many reasons -- espeically since I believe in a loving God.

I don't think He would EVER want me and my daughter to almost starve to death during my pregnancy with her 5 years ago. I reject the idea that God metes out suffering to teach us a lesson.

May 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCin

Stumbled across this looking for the exact wording of the quote and just had to comment, even knowing the post is now 3 yrs old.

Personally, I love the quote. I draw strength from it. I've gone through a lot - almost losing both parents at a young age, numerous times due to both of them having serious medical issues, having gone through (and still going through) serious financial difficulties resulting in bankruptcy, losing several members of my family to cancer, and my own medical issues (am currently waiting on test results for uterine cancer).

In the end, I've come through everything life has handed me, and will strive to continue to do so. It is so easy to say "you don't know what 'X' is like" or "if you could walk a mile in my shoes" while completely disregarding that many people share the same difficulties, they just deal with them differently. I'm a stronger, and better person for the things I've gone through that might have broken someone else. I'm proud that I've managed to get through these things with my head still above water, even as I struggle to make it shore.

I, personally, think that if more people realized that while they might have some seriously sh*tty stuff going on in their lives at this very moment, they've probably had just as awful things, if totally different, happen before and they GOT THROUGH IT. Yes, some people never do and that is tragic, but to suggest that those who draw strength from the idea that whatever you manage to survive actually makes you a stronger person is somehow a BAD thing is also rather tragic. Would you prefer people struggling to simply whine about how awful and hard their lives have been, or still are? What good does that do exactly?

Anyway, sorry for rambling on an ancient post. *laughs* It's an interesting one that, as you can see, inspires discussion. ;)

November 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJD

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