“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” That’s what philosopher Fredrick Nietzsche wrote about 150 years ago. This sentiment is echoed in Kelley Clarkson’s hit song, “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You).”
I recently spent time with a young woman. While she’s bright, professionally engaged, and living what many probably view as a successful life, the scars from childhood continue to have an impact on her. Her father was an alcoholic who eventually abandoned the family. Her mother was physically and psychologically abusive. Now in her thirties, she’s a strong person. But she can also be very controlling and abrupt. She has difficulty with intimacy and is often perfectionistic. Given her childhood experiences, she needs to make sure that day to day life maintains a high level of security and stability. Her experience didn’t kill her. She’s resilient and continues to grow. But she also has a clear emotional handicap that she may never overcome.
I’ve had difficult times in my own life as well. I was bullied throughout most of my childhood, including by my older brother. Coming-out as a gay man in the 1970’s was tremendously difficult. Many people I thought of as close friends abruptly cut me off, sometimes in mean-spirited ways. Then, in the 1980’s, I witnessed friend after friend die from complications due to HIV/AIDS. Another significant challenge over many of those years was the realization that the church in which I found a sense of comfort, strength, and inspiration was protecting abusers of various sorts. It took until the 1990’s for me to find solid ground to sort it all out. These things didn’t kill me. But they wounded me deeply. They left a variety of scars. There are also a variety of holes in my life that can never be fully healed because of the deep losses I’ve experienced.
Based on my own life experience and based on what I’ve witnessed in the lives of others, there are things in life that do kill people. Often, institutions and policies kill people. That was true when my friends died due to HIV/AIDS twenty-five years ago. It continues to be true for veterans who can’t get timely medical care. It’s true in states like Georgia that have refused to expand Medicaid as part of the Affordable Care Act.
There are the things that wound us so deeply that living life fully becomes very challenging if not seemingly impossible. I think of the young man who shared with me the horrific childhood experience of being forced to watch his father rape his older sister. Now a grown man, he sees patterns of his father’s abusive behavior becoming manifest in him, particularly when he’s drinking. The realization is tremendously stressful for him and he finds himself at a loss to cope. Of course, that just makes drinking seem more attractive. More common than his particular experience are the incredible life stresses that overwhelm people and lead to anxiety disorders like PTSD.
There are also the scars we carry from ordinary life events. All of us have been nicked and bruised by disappointments and losses. I suppose it’s possible to move through life without experiencing any kind of heart-ache. I don’t think I’ve met a person who has escaped pain in life, but such people could exist, I suppose. Instead, I’ve more often found people who have walled off the pain or who refuse to admit that it’s there. My experience is that those who block the pain are generally worse off than the ones who recognize their wounds and learn to live with them and even grow beyond them. People who ignore life’s pain generally lash out at others and inflict suffering on the people around them.
So…..is it all hopeless? Do I have an even more negative view of life than did Fredrick Nietzsche and those of his era who essentially believed that life wasn’t worth living? No! And I mean a very emphatic, “NO!”
Things that don’t kill us don’t necessarily make us stronger. But the human spirit has the ability to rise above the pains and wounds of life. Just as when a person whose legs were crushed in an automobile accident, our legs may never be as strong as they were before. Indeed, we may find that we always walk with a limp. But we can draw on the inner strength of the human spirit to begin to walk even with a limp and find ways to creatively engage in life again.
I am a Christian. By that I mean that I draw inspiration and vision for my life from the teachings of Jesus and the stories about his life conveyed within the Christian tradition. I understand the capacity for human resiliency in the face of life’s tragedies from what I know of the life of Jesus. Through no fault of his own, simply because of speaking the truth about life, love, and justice, he was tortured and executed as an enemy of the state. He experienced one of the most horrible executions known to humanity: crucifixion. Yet, he passed through this pain and came out the other side to new life – what Christian’s call resurrection. Even so, the stories of the resurrected Christ make it very clear: the wounds from the crucifixion were very much visible. In fact, one of the disciples, Thomas, was asked to put his fingers in the nail holes and his hand into the wound on Christ’s side.
The sentiment, “That which doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger,” suggests to me that life’s pain and suffering make us so much better than before that it’s as though we’re super heroes of some sort. Instead, I contend that we continue to carry with us the wounds of the tragedies we experience in life. They will always be part of us. Yet, we can pass through the pain, the suffering, and the tragedy and discover a new way of living on the other side. We may not be stronger. We may walk with a metaphoric limp. But we can have a deeper, richer appreciation for the goodness that is also part of the fabric of our lives. It’s that goodness that sustains us and moves us onward in hope.
© 2014, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.