I was recently reading The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. One of the things the book describes is the increasing popularity of three “Great Untruths”. The first of those can be paraphrased “what does not kill me makes me weaker”
I first thought about the phrase “what does not kill me makes me stronger” in middle school, as my martial arts teacher was quite fond of it.
He was testing for another degree on his black belt. Part of the test went as follows: someone lay out a tarp. They put down a bunch of broken glass on the tarp. My teacher took of his shirt. He lay down so his back was over the glass and someone placed several large cement blocks on his chest. Then, a very tiny lady with a very large hammer took her best shot at breaking them. Took her a few tries. Finally, my teacher got up, and was scored by the number of pieces of glass in his back. I presumed less was better.
It was around that time that I decided that “what doesn’t kill me” could probably result in permanent injuries, and that my martial arts teacher might not be the best person to take life advice from (He also believed in “fair fights”, something my father wasn’t especially pleased by).
The actual quote is from Nietzche’s Twilight of the Idols, which is something I didn’t learn until I was older. It isn’t taken out of context per say, because there really isn’t much context. It’s the 8th entry of the section Maxims and Missiles, sandwiched between Seven: “Which is it? Is man only a blunder of God? Or is God only a blunder of man” and Nine:”Help thyself, then everyone will help thee. A principle of neighbour-love.”
As a literal truth, it’s a bit lacking, because arguably there are plenty of things that can leave a person weaker without killing him. As a metaphorical truth, however, the idea goes a bit deeper.
The challenges we overcome, physical, emotional, or intellectual do frequently leave us stronger in some sense. A debate, for example, should leave our thoughts better honed, our opinions better reasoned.
The book, The Coddling of the American Mind addresses the idea in the metaphorical. Haidt and Lukianoff state that “teaching kids that failures, insults, and painful experiences will do lasting damage is harmful in and of itself. Human beings need physical and mental challenges and stressors or we deteriorate.”
The authors believe that this has become increasingly prevalent, and it matches what I observed in college and the news as well as professionally. They are correct about humans requiring stressors; it’s the explanation behind the muscle atrophy of bedrest and the bone density loss of astronauts in space.
Avoiding physical stress results in physical weakness. Is the same true for emotional and intellectual stress? And, if it is, what the heck are we doing