As of this posting, there is a pop song called, “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger” by Kelly Clarkson making through the chart. When I heard the song for the first time, a thought floated in my head, “I don’t recall the quote being exactly that”. It turns out that this is a paraphrase of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, a German philosopher who lived between 1844 and 1900. The quote which is attributed to him is "That which does not kill us makes us stronger."
As I was Googling to find out why I thought the Clarkson’s song got it wrong, I looked up the movie where I heard the familiar phrase that was different from the popular version. This quote in my head was from the movie, “Zero Effect” introduced in 1998. The phrase uttered by “Gloria Sullivan” in the movie is, “What doesn't kill you defines you.” I remembered this quote because I recalled how my head was nodding with an agreement as the scene was played. Hearing Clarkson’s song made me revisit the idea that this statement is not quite accurate; not just in my recollection but in life.
The magazine, Psychology Today published an article, “What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Weaker” by Noam Shpancer, Ph.D. on August 21, 2010. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/insight-therapy/201008/what-doesnt-kill-you-makes-you-weaker
Shpancer writes, “... the bulk of psychological research on the topic shows that, as a rule, if you are stronger after hardship, it is probably despite, not because of the hardship.” He goes on to support the case, using cultural reasonings and reference to studies. Shpancer's thesis does not require much of a reach to understand, as his points are well outlined.
If “what doesn't kill you makes you stronger” is the unqualified truth, then the children who survive abusive environment should be the pillar of strength, impervious to anything the world throws at them. To the contrary, when it comes to child-rearing, most parents make effort to provide (the idea of) nurturing, structured, loving and gentle environment to build their children's confidence and self esteem. It's likely that too many difficult experiences take toll on human psychology, just like the body weakens when it is subjected to harsh treatments.
Coincidentally, Vanity Fair published an article “Trial of the Will” on January 2012 by Christopher Hitchens after his death on December 2011, the result of one and a half year of his struggle with esophageal cancer. Hitchens challenges Nietzsche's famous assertion, not just by using his own experience of the brutal cancer treatment, but also using Nietzsche's life. It seems that Nietzsche did not escape life’s test without being scarred.
And it is not as if Hitchens lacked deep and philosophical perspective on life. To stand his atheist ground, he was well read and likely to have understood many facets of life compared to most people. If Hitchens had survived, would he have said “bring it on” or “oh no, not that dreaded ...” if the cancer had returned? His final article makes it clear.
As Shpancer points out, American culture possesses a “hopeful can-do” attitude, and we would like to believe that we can come out at the other end stronger. A concept or repeated phrase often becomes an unquestionable cultural truth and takes on the attribute of an absolute value. But Nietzsche's unqualified statement is not true.
I think the confusion arises from, at least contributed by, the undistinguished use of, “challenge” and “adverse”. What’s lost is their connotations. In the simplest explanation, “challenge” implies an experience where one feels he is a participant of an event, whereas “adverse” points toward being a subject, where an individual feels he is a recipient of an event, without control. And as most people can attest, being involved in challenging events can certainly test one’s strength and feel stronger for successful closure, an achievement. Even if success was not achieved, one might feel comfortable in putting the outcome in some perspective. In an adverse event, the recipient would feel no input into the outcome; perhaps controlled by others, feeling beaten, no end in sight.
To Shapancer’s point, until a few years ago, I had found adopting Nietzsche’s assertion quite assuring when I felt myself sinking deep into the darker side when life got hard; an assurance that I would gain something positive on the other side of the struggle. However, in the end, the statement is more about a perspective than reality. After all, there is no benefit in letting oneself just feeling beaten. But I found that there is a downside to this coping mechanism. I didn’t feel getting tougher on all difficult situations, and it occasionally put judgment of my own character in question for not reaching this inevitable outcome.
For one, if my way of coping mechanism made me see myself as a failure for not fulfilling this “inevitable” conclusion, that's no good because the remedy had a side effect that is creeping into self judgment. Furthermore, a realization set in that this is not the rule when I tried to apply this principle even on others. The statistics on PTSD development after traumatic (e.g. violence, combat) experiences simply doesn’t support Nietzsche’s statement. Why hold on to something that clouds perspective?
So then Gloria Sullivan was right. It is about how an adverse experience takes shape in one's mind; not that surviving it will make an individual stronger. Maybe some of us just feel stronger after a tough experience because it offered an opportunity for a concrete insight into ourselves and gain more confidence for getting to know ourselves better. But in the end, how much control do we have of the impression made by an event? A perception is shaped by varying traits and a set of ideas pre-shaped by our previous experiences. And maybe, it just defines us.
For all the depth of Nietzsche, I think that Hollywood got this one right.