That Which Doesn’t Kill You? That Depends, Really.

Working in a retail environment, I have the displeasure of being exposed to many a crappy pop song, and one that’s been playing at my store recently has gotten me thinking of Nietzsche, Mother Teresa, and their shared infatuation with suffering. I’m not even sure who sings the song, and don’t really care. I’m not going to look it up, and I’m not going to link it here, but just know that it involves the line “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” This isn’t the first time a variation of this statement has popped up in popular culture (Megadeth’s Skin O’ My Teeth comes readily to mind, for instance), but hearing it repeatedly every time I work has gotten the gears of my brain turning over it.

Firstly, the quote is a paraphrase of what Nietzsche famously said in Twilight of the Idols:

That which does not kill us makes us stronger.

And secondly, I don’t think it’s quite completely correct: sometimes, what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker. Sometimes what doesn’t kill you leaves you in such a broken state that you wish you hadn’t lived. Nietzsche thought this was something to be thankful for, he thought the only authentic existence for a human being entailed suffering and woe. In The Will To Power, he wished suffering on his friends, saying:

To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities—I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not—that one endures.

As someone who has suffered with depression most of his adult life, and who has a profound distrust of those who seem happy all the time (I always feel like they’re hiding something), I will say right now that I think wishing malady on your friends is a dick move. I don’t think it necessarily follows that just because someone’s life knocks them around a bit that it means that person will be any nobler or better at life than anyone else. Sometimes all it makes you is jaded, broken and unhappy.

I find it interesting that while Nietzsche thought suffering was the bees knees, he abhorred anything that reduced it—like say, alcohol, drugs or religion. Compare that to the likes of Mother Teresa, who seemed to think suffering was a part of being devoutly religious when she said

Pain and suffering have come into your life, but remember pain, sorrow, suffering are but the kiss of Jesus – a sign that you have come so close to Him that He can kiss you.

Pain, sorrow and suffering bring you closer to Jesus! Strikes me as odd, since Nietzsche’s main argument against religion’s role in suffering was that it was a sort of balm, lessening pain and sorrow by putting the weight of your woes on God. To me, it sounds like Teresa thought that suffering should be tolerated because it brings you closer to God, and it sounds nothing like she thought that God will lessen your suffering at all (until you’re dead and you go to heaven, of course).

I’d have to say that I don’t agree, at least not in all cases. Sometimes, hardship does seem to build character, and other times it just breaks a person down and grinds them into a shell of their former selves. I think it all depends on the person and on the situation. Sometimes, what doesn’t kill you just makes you wish you were dead.

And that’s enough of me…

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