The nineteen-century philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, is known as the author of the quote, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” A century later, we can find many variations of this concept in many forms with the easiest, and most ubiquitous, being “no pain, no gain.”
The principle is that through surviving adversity and tragedy, we grow as a person. That we experience hardship, pain and suffering, and fully experience the essence of life. That wisdom and strength comes not as a guaranteed result of aging, but rather from the personal book of knowledge written through diaries of experiencing adversity and personal tragedy.
Building upon this, the linear relationship between strength and tragedy would suggest that the strongest people alive would be those who have suffered the most. Yet, I’m not sure this is the case. Like everything in our world, it is very dangerous to generalize and draw blanket conclusions from these generalizations.
Does suffering through and surviving personal tragedy result in enhanced worldly insight and a heightened moral character? We know this to be true in many, many cases, however, there may be an equal number of cases where tragedy left the victim physically alive, but unable to continue living a full life. In other words, that which did not kill them only left them weaker.
The Nietzsche quote, when taken literally, could possibly bring with it a logical outcome. That is, if in fact, that which does not kill us only makes us stronger, then should we not be grateful for adversity and tragedy in our lives? Taken to an illogical extreme, would we consciously wish adversity and tragedy upon ourselves so we can, in turn, overcome the events and become stronger? That’s a tough pill to swallow, and I can’t sign up for this argument, nor do any people I have in my life who know personal tragedy firsthand. And so, retreating from this polar extreme, we are left with the more moderate stance of that which does not kill you only makes you stronger. However, we truly hope tragedy does not show up on our doorstep today.
A common definition of the word tragedy includes themes such as: an event causing great suffering, destruction, and distress (such as losing a child), a serious accident, being a victim of violent crime or natural catastrophe. When I think of personal tragedy in my own life and the lives of my extended friends and family, I see themes including accidental and untimely deaths, debilitating disease, addiction, physical, sexual and emotional abuse, and other events that we now know can result in post-traumatic stress disorders.
Yet, in most cases when I view my personal landscape, we have carried on. Some stronger perhaps, some maybe not, but we carry on nonetheless. When reflecting, though, I can safely draw one conclusion. I do not know an instance where, even in hindsight, we would consider the experience of the tragic event some sort of blessing. With true tragedy, at no point do we look back and say, “Wow, am I ever glad that happened!” And so, with this conclusion in mind, we arrive at another conclusion – there is a vast difference between dealing with adversity as opposed to dealing with tragedy.
Adversity, as we know it, is the aggregate of those daily challenges we face within our relationships, our work, our finances, our general health – those adversities where working to overcome them will result in us being stronger. However, is this not simply life experience? As the saying goes, “Shit happens, right?” And should we not become smarter, wiser, stronger as we grow just as an outcome of living a life of self-reflection from these life experiences? It seems logical that one requirement for living should be to live, to experience, to deal with adversity and learn and grow in the process. Perhaps one of our societal issues today is people see basic adversity as tragic. We are stressed, we suffer from anxiety, we are scared, we are mad, and we are sad. Yet, at the same time, many of us have had only simply daily challenges that define any given day.
With that, can we reasonably draw a conclusion that adversity is different than tragedy?
Interestingly enough, the term tragedy inhabits another world from the common definition we just explored. Think of the Shakespearian tragedy – a form of dramatic theater based on human suffering that invokes an accompanying catharsis, and maybe even pleasure, for the viewing audience. The play is often a dramatic setting dealing with somber themes, and will typically involve some great and powerful person who is destined to experience a tragic downfall and often death. And the viewing audience sees it all unfolding as they are aware of the character flaws in the hero; they see the tragic blind spots that are not visible to the character themselves. In this setting, the tragedy is nothing more than a group of uncommitted strangers watching the progressive obvious, and not surprising, destruction of an often-destructive character. There is a part of me that wonders why this is even considered a tragedy. At the risk of criticizing Shakespeare, this plot structure could be argued to be nothing more than some powerful dumbass realizing the logical and karma-filled conclusion of being a dumbass.
Yes, a Shakespearian tragedy may not describe a typical life at all. Very few of us rise to royalty and power only to allow our blind spots and biases to be so detrimental that we implode in front of innocent onlookers. I’m not saying it does not happen, I’m just saying this is not typical of the tragedy that normally impacts the common person. The Shakespearian tragedy seems to focus more on causality, that you reap what you sow, that doing good will deliver good in kind, and bad will deliver bad. That tragedy happens because of us.
The truth is, typical tragedy happens to us and not because of us. It feels random and unplanned by thoughtful plot or progressive scenes that are building a mountain of personal character flaws that will eventually topple on top of us. Simply put, a lot of tragedy appears to be nothing short of simple random bad luck. Universal entropy. Being in the direct line of chaos in a chaotic world. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In spite of the appearance of randomness, it happens nonetheless, and what we do with it, how we react to it, who we are after the aftermath, would all appear to define who we become as an individual in the life we live after the tragedy.
Alas, are we any closer to understanding whether that which does not kill us makes us stronger?
I am very blessed with having many people that I sincerely call friend. These friendships have varying degrees of tenure, history, and frequency of contact. What makes them sincere friendships, though, is the deepness of dialogue when we do spend time together – the richness, the importance, the relevancy of the conversations. And within my group of friends, we have stories of surviving personal tragedy which has led to multiple conversations over time; which has resulted in getting closer to answering our question.
Now that we have dealt with the essence of tragedy, we need to turn our attention to the idea of strength. The question is, once tragedy has presented itself in its cold form, what does it even mean to be made stronger? What is strength? This is one of two important questions I explored with my friends who know tragedy first hand.
One conclusion drawn is that there are three areas a person can be made stronger from experience. These are physical, intellectual, and spiritual. Body, Mind and Soul. And of these three, becoming stronger from tragedy appears to center itself on the spiritual. The soul. In other words, perhaps some people may dive into becoming physically stronger or perhaps may learn about a new topic more deeply, but the real strength earned through surviving tragedy comes in the form of spiritual growth. Strengthening of the soul. The soul, that illusive, non-physical, non-biological, invisible to x-ray part of our being that is the essence of life, that which drives our appetite for living, that which defines our desires, our passions, our emotions, and our moral character to differentiate between right and wrong. The soul that allows us to examine the distance between joy and pain. To understand and determine how we will react to adversity and tragedy when it knocks on our door. And most importantly, relative to our conversation today, the soul and our degree of spiritual strength is what determines our strength of purpose.
Purpose. The reason something has happened or the reason why something exists. Purpose. The reason for which we are here. Purpose. Why did this happen and why did it happen to me? Purpose. What is my purpose now that I have suffered and lived through this tragedy? Purpose. What am I supposed to do now?
In my conversations with friends, the idea of heightened purpose was a common denominator in surviving tragedy. So, to further paraphrase Friedrich Nietzsche, that which does not kill us, if we chose to fight, will make us stronger in soul and purpose. (Note: Reminder to loop back to this at the end of my narrative as I probably just offended a whole group of philosophers.)
Anyway, to me, this makes perfect sense. The tragedy has taken place. We are still here. We must choose what direction to take. Of all the paths available to choose, a path based on a fundamental change of perspective, a positive, purposeful change seems appropriate.
Which led me to the second question I asked my friends, “You have survived personal tragedy, you chose to fight, and you have become stronger spiritually and you have a new sense of purpose for your life. But, are you happy?”
Happiness, perhaps one of the most overused and misunderstood words in the English language. What’s interesting, though, is that there does not seem to be a definition of what it even means to be happy. Don’t get me wrong. There are volumes of material about what you can do to become happy, but there is very little on what it actually means to be happy. We see themes such as to feel pleasure, to be content, to be satisfied. But these in themselves would need further description. In the end, perhaps the word happy cannot be described for what it is but rather what it is not. Meaning, to be happy is simply to be void of pain and suffering. Under this definition, many, many people, in particular in the developed world, should be considered being in a position to be happy. Yet, many people don’t seem to be happy. And so, the search for answers continues and leads us to another word.
There is one word I have not introduced yet that plays a part in connecting our entire conversation. That word is control.
Control, or better yet, being in control, plays a key role in the conversation of dealing with tragedy. Overwhelming, people who successfully survive tragedy, who become spiritually stronger, who develop a renewed sense of purpose, also share a common belief. That is the belief that we are not in control of events and the workings of the world. That there is a higher power that is in control. A higher power, a divine entity in the form of God or a Great Spirit.
And so, we relinquish our need for control to God and we accept that pain and suffering is a part of life, that God wants us to grow through this pain, that all things work together in this world, that everything is one, the good and the bad, that when we suffer, this is God challenging us, forcing us to think about our lives, to reflect and understand what is holding us back from being everything we can be, to reflect and understand what is holding us back from living with purpose, and being who we were designed to be. In other words, to understand and have faith that there is a larger plan for our lives than we recognize and that there is a higher purpose to be gained from the pain.
And through reaching this understanding, we may experience joy, and this joy may seem very similar to the undefined idea of happiness.
Yet the joy does not come from money or events or time healing wounds, but rather the joy comes from the steadfast, all consuming, all purposeful belief that life on earth is just a single step in a greater journey, a journey which preceded our time here and will continue into the next phase when we depart. And the joy is a result of knowing that in the next step we will enter a place that is without pain, without tears, and in addition to this, we will once again be reunited with those we have loved throughout our journey. Let’s call this heaven.
And knowing that this place is next, knowing that we will one day connect all the dots, will one day learn the answers to questions we have no answers for today, combined with the peace one gets by relinquishing control and instead living with a purpose to serve, to help, to be kind, to be a good person – this is how people get through tragedy. This is how we become stronger. This is how we can rationalize the saying that which does not kill us only makes us stronger.
Closing Point: Full transparency. I am not a philosopher and I am not formally educated on Frederick Nietzsche. However, I am superficially aware that Friedrich Nietzsche, the author of our quote, actually did not believe in purpose. So, I apologize up front for offending anybody who understands this much better than I do.
Last closing point. Many of us have had our fair share of tragedy and many others have had better luck and have avoided the big, bad stuff so far. The irony is often the kindest people in our communities are the people who have suffered most. So, if you are one of the lucky ones, take some time to help those who have been less fortunate. Take some time to make the world a better place at the ground level.
Take time, friends.