We’ve all heard the saying. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” It is said at times of crises and pain, stress and trauma. In fact, this is such a popular expression that it featured in a recent chart-topping hit by the renowned Kelly Clarkson. Many people believe that this view is valid – that suffering can and must always provide a learning opportunity, a path toward character growth and personal development. This is most often espoused by theists, followers of a religion with one deity, or by Hindus who buy into the idea of karma, but is also not uncommonly held by individuals outside these structures. At first it seems, self-evident-a harmless, innocuous platitude – however, this careless statement represents a deeply flawed and damaging concept.
Take in certain situations, the idea that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” may seem to be a comfort. It provides the individual with a sense that, not only shall their difficulty pass, but it shall leave them a better and more emotionally-equipped person. This is a wondrous idea when one is dealing with examination stress, deadlines at work, unrequited love or the discontinuance of a beloved fragrance or type of shoe. It is exclusive to small and manageable sufferings – situations which, although they might feel overwhelming at the time, are really not that devastating in the long term. To those dealing with horrific losses such as the news of their paraplegia or the death of a loved one, this supposedly comforting idea can simply minimise and undermine their legitimate pain or anger.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” becomes an especially clumsy and awkward view when dealing with terminal or critical illness. The number of rare disease sufferers, cancer or AIDS patients who are either unsure of their survival prospects or dealing with the knowledge of their impending death is not as insignificant as many seem to believe. What conclusion are these individuals supposed to draw from this expression? Nothing. It offers them no solace; and can exacerbate feelings of isolation from individuals who have fewer traumas to deal with. Perhaps if society, or Kelly Clarkson, were to realise the number of people who are both hurt and ostracised by this saying, it might be less frequently and carelessly tossed around.
The potential of this expression to undermine or disregard an individual’s feelings, however traumatizing, is not its main flaw. There are massive flaws in the basic idea behind its conception. Firstly, the idea that something positive is always gained from suffering is a laughably naïve and idealistic idea. If it were true, all middle-aged people would be strong and elderly people even more so, as logically one experiences more as one grows older, and at least some of this experience is negative; and as these individuals clearly haven’t been ‘killed’ yet. Often suffering doesn’t ‘improve’ people at all. Sometimes it just hurts. Sometimes it leaves people bereft and crippled – either physically or mentally.
The second flaw is that this expression fits with the idea that, if there is always something to be gained from human suffering; suffering must happen for a reason. This is a disastrously common view, chiefly based in religion. A theist would argue that if what doesn’t kill you does, in fact, make you stronger, suffering is justified and worth it, and somehow meant to be. A personal God, according to the followers of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, is involved in peoples’ lives, punishing and rewarding individuals and sending suffering to test people. This is, according to the theist, worth it because God or Allah knows that suffering will help people to form a holy character.
There is a clear and undeniable logical counter to this thought; one espoused by both atheists and deists. It holds that, in fact, some things are just not great because the world isn’t perfect. Suffering is suffering; it is there because nothing is flawless. It is pointless to justify it, because we don’t have to prove any God who would create or allow it.
The Buddhists take this further. They believe suffering is an unavoidable truth, and one can only avoid existential angst through acceptance of this fact. They do not hold that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” but rather that “what doesn’t kill you is just life”. We do not need to strive to be ‘strong’ in the face of anguish, nor does anguish make us strong; as all we need we have within us. Furthermore, what does kill us is also just natural and unavoidable, as death is an inevitable part of life, and fighting this fact only causes humanity further unnecessary distress. We have enough problems as it is.
“What doesn’t kill us” does not have to make us stronger. It just happens, and we have to cope with it. Regardless of one’s religious beliefs, this seems to me to be the view which allows the most room for empathy and compassion toward one another – no matter how large or small the crises. The loss of a loved one or a favourite shoe is equally well-served and recognised by this. It seems to be the most sensible, sensitive view.