Friday, March 2, 2012

Nietzsche was wrong

"What doesn't kill us only makes us stronger." --Friedrich Nietzsche

Is it true? Does that which doesn't kill us really makes us stronger? People who have experienced major adverse events, such as the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, often avoid long-term debilitation. That much is certain, but there's little evidence to suggest that anyone who has been dealt a severe body blow is likely to end up more resilient for it. The capacity to handle future difficulties with greater strength and adaptability, and to rebound emotionally faster and more effectively, strikes me a pleasant fiction.
To my observation, resilience is more the norm than the exception. Many people I know have had to cope with serious adversity in their lives, and most do not appear to permanently suffer for it. People tend to recover faster and better from hardship than we expect them to. But there is a big difference between returning to being “your old self” after something bad happens and ending up somehow stronger for it.

How nice it would be if adversity did indeed foster resilience and make those who have been through a lot actually tougher for the experience. It flatters me to think that cancer has made me a stronger person, and somehow better able to deal with whatever lies around the corner. Sadly, I know it hasn't. If having cancer has imparted upon me any virtue, it is by God’s grace alone and not because of any intrinsic value of the adversity itself.
Nietzsche, the severely irreligious 19th-century philosopher, is not the sort of thinker whose wisdom I would choose to apply to my life. That his famous quote has found life beyond his own is ironic given how short and miserable his was. He is believed to have lost his mind in his 50s to what was probably syphilis. His saying, however, continues to resonate in American culture, which is imbued with a hopeful can-do ethos. We want to believe Nietzsche’s idea, finding it self-affirming and vaguely Oprah-like. Our eagerness to ease the pain of suffering by rationalizing it, along with our tendency to look for information that supports our preexisting beliefs, help explain how we arrive at our faith in the school of hard knocks. Nietzsche would have made an exemplary 21st-century talk-show guest.

But the bulk of psychological research on this topic shows that, as a rule, if you are stronger after serious hardships, it is probably despite, not because of the hardship. The school of hard knocks does little more than knock you down, hard. Nietzschian wisdom and country-western lyrics notwithstanding, we are not stronger in the broken places. What doesn’t kill us can, in fact, make us weaker. In my experience, trauma is a lousy teacher. It leaves us bruised emotionally and, in some cases, literally.
There is a certain logic, however, to the thought that a modest amount of trauma might do us some good. By having to push through tough situations and succeeding, you can approach them in the future with greater confidence that you’ll be able to manage them again. Without adversity, you don’t get a chance to hone your coping skills, and develop the “I can get through this” sense of mastery that serves you well when trouble inevitably does come along.
Too much adversity, on the other hand, can overwhelm our psychological resources, leaving us feeling less capable of coping when things go wrong. In the world of cancer, where there is a massive amount of adversity, people often don’t end up tougher for having survived. I don’t count myself among this population, as my treatment has been remarkably manageable. But I have known others whose experiences have left them wounded and who have a hard time just getting through the day. Slapping a happy-face sticker on their get-well-soon card is an insult.
To seek meaning in suffering is a natural response to being human. Our brain is a meaning-making machine, designed to sort vast and varied sensory information into a narrative with order and coherence. I do this all the time with varying degrees of success, as this blog attests. This process requires discrimination and the rejection of those ideas that experience tells us are wrong. Neitzsche’s is one of them. Some things that don’t kill us can cripple us instead. Pretending otherwise is folly, and no amount of bright-eyed American optimism can change that.


grsmouse said...

Thank you Peter for a good outlook on trauma. With years of experience dealing with people and suffering I can other comment needed!

Anonymous said...

you gained nothing
you gained nothing ever

you are right
you are weaker

everyone who NEVER faced what u faced is stronger

Anonymous said...

This quote is usually taken out of context. The actual quote is:

"From the school of war: What doesn't kill me makes me stronger"

In this context Nietzsche could be speaking ironically - why else provide the "from the school of war" bit. Not sure on this myself - just some food for thought.