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Dec 07 2011

Scratch another maxim off the atheist list

You’ve all heard the aphorism, “That which does not kill me makes me stronger”. It turns out it’s not true, as Christopher Hitchens dismantles it in his latest column. He’d know.

But, as with the normal life, one finds that every passing day represents more and more relentlessly subtracted from less and less. In other words, the process both etiolates you and moves you nearer toward death. How could it be otherwise? Just as I was beginning to reflect along these lines, I came across an article on the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. We now know, from dearly bought experience, much more about this malady than we used to. Apparently, one of the symptoms by which it is made known is that a tough veteran will say, seeking to make light of his experience, that “what didn’t kill me made me stronger.” This is one of the manifestations that “denial” takes.

I am attracted to the German etymology of the word “stark,” and its relative used by Nietzsche, stärker, which means “stronger.” In Yiddish, to call someone a shtarker is to credit him with being a militant, a tough guy, a hard worker. So far, I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable decline. I repeat, this is no more than what a healthy person has to do in slower motion. It is our common fate. In either case, though, one can dispense with facile maxims that don’t live up to their apparent billing.

69 comments

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  1. 1
    Glen Davidson

    Of course Nietzsche was saying that what didn’t kill him, or another ubermensch perhaps, made him stronger. He wasn’t an idiot, he knew that many people became weaker from illness and difficulty. Not saying he was right about himself and other ‘higher types,’ of course, I’m just pointing out that his aphorisms weren’t intended for the all too many.

    Might as well kill it, since it was rarely understood in context anyhow.

    Glen Davidson

  2. 2
    holytape

    We should replace that idiom with a much truer one. “That which does not kill me, will probably hurt like hell.”

    Fear and Loathing Damascus

  3. 3
    SallyStrange

    That shtarker is starkers.

  4. 4
    NitricAcid

    I’ve known that “stark” was German for “strong” for many years, but now I can’t hear the word without thinking “Winter is Coming”.

  5. 5
    redmjoel

    I was listening to the radio the other day, and someone was talking to a civil rights activist from the 60s about how courageous she was. She laughed at him and said “Honey, courage is what happens when you have no options.” Somehow I found that to be quite profound, and seems indicative of Hitchins’ actions lately. He can’t just lie down, it’s not in his character. Instead, he’s showing the rest of dignity and courage.

  6. 6
    johnwilkins

    I have always said that what does not kill me may leave me weeping, broken and bleeding in a gutter. But perhaps that’s only my Saturday nights…

  7. 7
    Sastra

    The “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” maxim is related to the “everything happens for a reason/for the best” trope which is related to the ‘soul-building’ theodicy and the “God works in mysterious ways” apologetic for why bad things happen to good people and there is so much apparently pointless suffering in the world.

    There is a critical distinction between making the best of a bad situation and trying to extract something useful from it — and blithely insisting that the situation must have been put there by a loving Universe specifically in order for you to make the best of it and get that useful thing from it. I am constantly amazed by how many people (religious and spiritual) think that latter view is not only reasonable, but comforting. They don’t seem to see the difference — and the danger.

    Sometimes what doesn’t kill you makes you really weak. A firm belief in the positive-thinking mantras turns those victims into failures.

  8. 8
    'Tis Himself

    That which doesn’t kill me just doesn’t kill me. No more, no less.

  9. 9
    rogerallen

    Nietzsche’s aphorisms are meant to start discussions, not finish them.

    ‘Let us endure an hour and see injustice done.’

  10. 10
    sithrazer

    ‘That which does not kill you, weakens you for that which does.’

  11. 11
    evilDoug

    That which does not kill me, merely delays the inevitable.

  12. 12
    Alverant

    That which does not kill you will fuck you up really badly and you’ll be lucky if you ever get back to normal again.

  13. 13
    Stevarious, Public Health Problem

    “That which does not kill you, is probably reloading right now.

  14. 14
    HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr

    Alverant @#12: That would about sum up how PTSD worked for me.

    I lived, and I’m proud I did. Proud is the right word, I’d say it’s an accomplishment, and a tough one.

    I mean, my physical health went down the toilet, and so did my mental health, finances, many of my social ties and quite a few years. Those first two, and the penultimate, have shown signs of regrowth lately.

    But strictly speaking, what happened to my mind and trust has left me rather extensively rewired, and being like I was is almost entirely uncertain. I found some strength I didn’t know I had, and learned some things, but overall, I can’t say it was in any way, shape or form a Good. Except possibly in showing me that I have the most astonishingly loving partners in the entire world, who supported me before I could even say what’s wrong.

  15. 15
    Lynna, OM

    Man oh man, that bit where the christian interviewer sets guides the conversation to a point where he can imply that Hitchens is also suffering from syphilis, like Nietzsche, or that Hitchens is suffering from a similar god-smiting due to immoral behavior — sheesh, how stupid and cruel can a christian be?

    The interviewer being polite in a southern-gentleman way, and then waylaying the suffering Hitchens with such cruelty mixed with stupidity left Hitchens speechless.

    Hitchens says he should have known he was being set up. Yep, he should have guessed. But really, that was low, even for a Christian radio jock in the southern USA. I guess there is no depth to which they will not stoop.

  16. 16
    Hairhead, whose head is entirely filled with Too Much Stuff

    Well, this IS a mordant thread.

    I have a lot of disagreements with Hitchens: his warmongering, his sexism, among others. But I cannot argue with his eloquence and his powers of observation and his continued bond with atheism despite the atrocities visited upon his body in the cause of extended life.

    I do wish him a recovery.

  17. 17
    Zinc Avenger (Sarcasm Tags 3.0 Compliant)

    That which does not kill you can make you wish it had.

  18. 18
    Mattir, Another One With Boltcutters

    I would like to offer a porcupine to every non-abused person who has ever glibly advised me to “learn lessons” from the abuse that I’ve experienced. PTSD has stolen years of pleasant life from me and left its fingerprints all over every relationship I’ve ever had. At this point, I gain considerable strength from Seneca’s aphorism: In the heart of the wise, the scar remains when the wound has healed” (often abbreviated as “cicatrix manet”), but I’d also give a lot not to have the damn scars in the first place.

    It would be better to say that that which does not kill us may (but does not necessarily) make us wiser.

  19. 19
    Illuminata, Genie in the Beer Bottle

    Its clearly not a universal, or eternal and I’m def not claiming I know what it is have a disease as Hitch does.

    But so far, its definitely true for me.

    The shit that’s happened to me that didn’t kill me did make me stronger. More willing to fight back, stand up for myself, get rid of toxic people or get out of toxic situations. Gave me the push I needed to make serious changes to my lifestyle. etc.

    isn’t that what the maxim refers to? It doesn’t mean phyiscal strength. It means perservence. . . . .doesn’t it?

    Or am I barking up an empty tree here?

  20. 20
    sakrisch

    That which does not kill me, makes me … oh NO! its coming back, RUN!!

  21. 21
    Anthony K

    Are there any maxims which are true and not self-evident?

  22. 22
    madarab

    That which does not kill me, really pisses me off.

  23. 23
    Michael

    My dad sent me on an ‘Outward Bound’ course when I was a teenager. Apparently the person who started Outward Bound noted that it was the younger, strong sailors who tended to die in lifeboats during WWII while the older, less strong sailors survived. He concluded that the difference was a mental fortitude, where the older sailors had been through bad experiences before and knew they would survive, while the younger ones were giving up and dying. So part of the purpose of the course was to teach you that you are capable of (enduring?) more than you realize, but also give you a better idea of what your limits are.

    So while I agree that physically what doesn’t kill you could leave you a cripple or worse, psychologically if it doesn’t completely traumatize you it can build up your mental fortitude.

  24. 24
    Anthony K

    My dad sent me on an ‘Outward Bound’ course when I was a teenager. Apparently the person who started Outward Bound noted that it was the younger, strong sailors who tended to die in lifeboats during WWII while the older, less strong sailors survived. He concluded that the difference was a mental fortitude, where the older sailors had been through bad experiences before and knew they would survive, while the younger ones were giving up and dying. So part of the purpose of the course was to teach you that you are capable of (enduring?) more than you realize, but also give you a better idea of what your limits are.

    So while I agree that physically what doesn’t kill you could leave you a cripple or worse, psychologically if it doesn’t completely traumatize you it can build up your mental fortitude.

    The take-away message of this is that Outward Bound teaches youngsters to draw the same sorts of spurious, just so conclusions as its founder.

  25. 25
    Zugswang

    I can’t believe no one has mentioned this great demotivator yet.

  26. 26
    Sastra

    michaelglenister #23 wrote:

    He concluded that the difference was a mental fortitude, where the older sailors had been through bad experiences before and knew they would survive, while the younger ones were giving up and dying.

    And how did he conclude this? Did he say?

  27. 27
    David Marjanović

    The “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” maxim is related to the “everything happens for a reason/for the best” trope which is related to the ‘soul-building’ theodicy and the “God works in mysterious ways” apologetic for why bad things happen to good people and there is so much apparently pointless suffering in the world.

    Bingo. Also, Godwin.

    That which does not kill you, is probably reloading right now.

    Into my quote collection.

    Apparently the person who started Outward Bound noted that it was the younger, strong sailors who tended to die in lifeboats during WWII while the older, less strong sailors survived. He concluded

    Not so fast. The Spanish flu preferentially killed up-to-then healthy people. They produced lots of snot and drowned in it. Those who were too weak to produce that much survived.

    And how did he conclude this? Did he say?

    By making an argumentum ex culo based on what seemed obvious because of his cultural background?

    It’s not like psychology was a science back then.

  28. 28
    Alethea Kuiper-Belt

    @michaelglenister, why did he conclude that? It seems quite possible that, for example, older sailors had more experience or younger sailors were more foolhardy.

  29. 29
    Sastra

    Illuminata #19 wrote:

    isn’t that what the maxim refers to? It doesn’t mean phyiscal strength. It means perservence. . . . .doesn’t it?

    Yes, I think it means perseverance — or compassion, or experience, or something else equally reasonable. And yes, it’s often true, and often good to think it’s true. But, as you note, it’s not universal, or eternal, or something that always applies. Wise statements turn into platitudes which can turn into stealth insults, depending on how and when they’re used.

  30. 30
    Sastra

    My (unsupported) guess would be that older sailors had less body weight and needed less nourishment than the young and healthy; they didn’t lose muscle as quickly. Rapidly losing muscle is bad.

  31. 31
    Seabisquick

    The logic is backwards. Only the survivors live to tell the tale. The weaker ones perish and so the population of survivors are stronger than the at-large population. But it’s a fallacy to think that they are stronger because of the adversity. We don’t have the voices of those who died under torture in Vietnam, for instance. We only have those left who started out strong enough to survive.

  32. 32
    jasonmartin99

    I’m a hair’s breadth away from filing for personal bankruptcy. I need that aphorism to be true right now.

  33. 33
    Alethea Kuiper-Belt

    lol, hivemind in action @ 26, 27 & 28.

    And sympathies to jasonmartin. It could still be true for you, even if it fails as a generalisation.

  34. 34
    Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human.

    How about, “That which does not kill me will give me horrible nightmares and panic attacks for the next 10 year (and counting)”?

    And I agree that this is part and parcel to the whole “gods’ plan,” or “the lord works in mysterious ways,” or “everything happens for a reason,” nonsense. And yes, I have had at least one coworker tell me how lucky I am to have been able to work down in NYC after the terrorist attack and that this will be a part of my life forever.

    That’s scary.

  35. 35
    Rey Fox

    And yes, I have had at least one coworker tell me how lucky I am to have been able to work down in NYC after the terrorist attack and that this will be a part of my life forever.

    Fucking A, I hope you slapped him silly.

  36. 36
    mikmik

    That which does not kill you, makes you wronger, if you then sayeth, “God saved me, it is a miracle.”

  37. 37
    csue

    That which does not kill me, is going to be awfully damn sorry it didn’t.

  38. 38
    Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human.

    Fucking A, I hope you slapped him silly.

    No. I really do not want a two-week unpaid vacation. This is also the guy who is a militant interventionist (but never served in the military), supports the troops with all kinds of stickers (but votes for GOP idiots who want to privativize the VA), and claims that America’s freedom is what makes us great (while also claiming one cannot be an American unless one is a Christian (or (in a pinch) a Jew)). If his brain ever starts to work, there will be a small explosion as all of his rank hypocrisy reacts. He also told me that nightmares are one of gods’ ways to keep things that are important to gods from being forgotten.

    If you exclude politics, international relations, religion, biology, geolology, cosmology, global climate change, and a few other choice subjects, he’s a pretty good guy.

  39. 39
    chigau (違う)

    FatherBrother Ogvorbis

    If you exclude politics, international relations, religion, biology, geolology, cosmology, global climate change, and a few other choice subjects, he’s a pretty good guy.

    So, he’ll lend you his pick-up and even help carry when you buy a new fridge?
    ===
    Why the demotion?

  40. 40
    Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human.

    So, he’ll lend you his pick-up and even help carry when you buy a new fridge?

    No pickup. Large American sedan (which I really can’t say much about as I drive a larer American sedan).

    Why the demotion?

    Becuase I canont splel anymroe.

  41. 41
    John Morales

    PTSD.

  42. 42
    Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human.

    Not officially. The agency will admit to stress reactions, but not PTSD. And the private group monitoring the health of rescue workers is extremely reistant to the idea that anyone down in Manhattan suffers from PTSD.

  43. 43
    chigau (違う)

    What about carrying the fridge? or rather
    wHta aboot crying hte fruge?

  44. 44
    John Morales

    Brother O, of course — and there was no such thing as “shell-shock” in WW1, either!

    Besides, do such “stress reactions” (!) make one stronger? ;)

  45. 45
    Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human.

    Besides, do such “stress reactions” (!) make one stronger? ;)

    Well, if you count insomnia, weight-gain and muscle cramping, then yes.

  46. 46
    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    I would like to offer a porcupine to every non-abused person who has ever glibly advised me to “learn lessons” from the abuse that I’ve experienced. PTSD has stolen years of pleasant life from me and left its fingerprints all over every relationship I’ve ever had.

    Seconded, albeit with, I assume, a different kind of abuse in mind.

    Also, any statement that begins with “well, you just gotta” should probably just be choked on.

  47. 47
    knut7777

    Shortly before my best friend’s untimely death this spring, he and I marveled at the grace and courage Hitchens has displayed in the course of his illness.
    Were I in similar straits I could only hope to be fortified by his example; I certainly could not emulate it.

  48. 48
    Azuma Hazuki

    I have always hated this mantra. What doesn’t kill you doesn’t kill you, sure, but it may leave you a shaking, paranoid wreck who only doesn’t kill herself because she’s even more paranoid about roasting in hellfire for eternity.

    What doesn’t kill you might make you so neurotic that the one you love will throw you away like a piece of trash, which of course makes you even worse. What doesn’t kill you might make you one of the walking dead, unable to form real lasting bonds any longer. What doesn’t kill you may drain all the color from the world and make you long for your approaching death. What doesn’t kill you may make you wish it fucking well had.

    Carlin was right about this: “‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ is pretentious middle class bullshit.’”

  49. 49
    EveryZig

    Even apart from the psychological aspects the statement is bull.
    Hasn’t Nietzsche ever heard of dismemberment?

  50. 50
    Goodbye Enemy Janine

    That which doesn’t kill you is not working hard enough.

  51. 51
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    csue #37:

    Thread won.

  52. 52
    nooneinparticular

    That which doesn’t kill me has made it’s last mistake.

  53. 53
    Dabu

    Often, that which does not kill you would have done so if it were more merciful.

  54. 54
    Ms Anne Thrope

    “I believe whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stranger”. – Heath Ledger’s Joker. My personal favourite.

  55. 55
    tuckerch

    Diagnosed less than ten days ago with aggressive thyroid cancer.

    Hitch speaks for me, and far better than I could ever say.

    Thanks, mate!

  56. 56
    syggyx

    Who else had to look up “etiolates” in the dictionary?

  57. 57
    Antiochus Epiphanes

    A related quip from the jolliest guy ever

    The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

  58. 58
    Illuminata, Genie in the Beer Bottle

    That which does not kill me, is going to be awfully damn sorry it didn’t.

    Win! I’m stealing this.

  59. 59
    markr1957

    All I know is that my first week in a war zone didn’t kill me, but it did make the muscles in my anal sphincter stronger. Then I learned to stop worrying about dying, and that has stuck with me ever since. I don’t go looking for it, but I’ll welcome death with open arms (and I’m not even slightly sick) – especially now I don’t worry about an eternity in the oven any more.

  60. 60
    Anthony K

    And sympathies to jasonmartin. It could still be true for you, even if it fails as a generalisation.

    How about an anecdote, jasonmartin? I have a friend who filed just a few years ago, and he was able to use the opportunity to remake himself, as it were (in his case this included ridding himself of some expensive and destructive chemical addictions as well as seeking psychological treatment for some severe childhood trauma.)

    Here’s hoping that whichever way things turn out for you, they turn out well.

  61. 61
    JackC

    That which DOES kill me

  62. 62
    Anri

    “I believe whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stranger”. – Heath Ledger’s Joker. My personal favourite.

    Trevor Goodchild from Aeon Flux beat him to it.

    Speaking of which: Trevor Goodchild and Geoffrey Zakarian – seperated at birth?
    Um, nevermind.

  63. 63
    mechanizedcaffeine

    As far as the way that saying, “what doesn’t kill…”, gets thrown around, I agree with Hitchens. Since he explicitly invoked Nietzsche though…

    Walter Kaufmann (generally considered to be the first competent person to translate Nietzche’s writings into English) translated the aphorism as,

    “Out of life’s school of war: What does not destroy me, makes me stronger.”

    My understanding Nietzsche is using ‘war’ the same way it was used in his infamous “On War and Warriors” section in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, as a metaphor for struggle (in that case especially intellectual struggles) rather than as anything actually militant.

    Also, the distinction between ‘kill’ and ‘destroy’ is an important one; disease, insanity, and unnecessary suffering all work to ‘destroy’ you even if they don’t kill you and therefore aren’t meant to be embraced with joy.

  64. 64
    David Marjanović

    And the private group monitoring the health of rescue workers is extremely reistant to the idea that anyone down in Manhattan suffers from PTSD.

    *headdesk*
    *headdesk*
    *headdesk*
    *headdesk*

    What the fuck is that? Toxic masculinity???

    Also, the distinction between ‘kill’ and ‘destroy’ is an important one; disease, insanity, and unnecessary suffering all work to ‘destroy’ you even if they don’t kill you and therefore aren’t meant to be embraced with joy.

    What does the original say? Does it say zerstört “destroys”? I always encounter it as umbringt “does in”.

  65. 65
    John Morales

    [OT + meta]

    David, I can’t read German, but here is the original (via Gutenberg).

  66. 66
    mechanizedcaffeine

    bleh, Once again I find myself wishing I could read more than just English.

    For what it’s worth, this is how its written in Twilight of the Idols (unless my Google skills are failing me again): “Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich stärker”

  67. 67
    Chris Booth

    When I was in college, my favorite teacher was diagnosed with cancer.

    Surgery, removal of stuff, chemotherapy.

    He kept going, and I was fortunate to have the time to chauffeur him here and there and do some basic lugging for him as he tried to maintain his activities, and we had some lovely talks along the way that are precious memories to me to this day.

    I remember vividly his deep rough smoker’s voice in the dark small car as we traveled some small country road one night: he told me “The church says that ‘We are all tried according to our strength,’” and snorted derisively.

    He was a profound reader of T.S. Eliot, and I think of him whenever I read this line from The Dry Salvages:

    …but this thing is sure,
    That time is no healer: the patient is no longer here.

    Neither “That which does not kill me makes me stronger” nor “we are all tried according to our strengths” is true. They are Pollyanna Pangloss pabulum. We are scarred by wounds time and again; then if we don’t die of injury we age, degrade, and lose ourselves in a tattered shabby shell of our old being; and in the end, no matter what, we lose to the trial, sans justice, sans strength, sans everything.

    But, Jack, who can’t ever hear me: Thirty years later, your student still loves and remembers you.

  68. 68
    Chris Booth

    David Marjanović in #27:

    “Argumentum ex culo” is delightful. Thank you for that. A happy smile here. I will use it, hoping you don’t mind.

  69. 69
    penasquito

    I believed it until I saw Homer in the hospital after a heart attack.

    Homer: Well, at least that which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger, right, doc?

    Doctor Hibbert: Nonsense. You’re weak as a kitten *begins batting Homer about the head and shoulders*

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