The “What Doesn’t Kill You” Paradox

Suffering built that mustasche

“From life’s school of war: what does not kill me makes me stronger.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols.

There’s a lot of truth to this popular phrase. It points to a broader truth: to grow, we must act. It is in the process of acting toward a purpose that our faculties are shaped. But acting toward a purpose can only happen if we have some goal that is not easy to achieve; otherwise, there’s nothing to act for. We need problems to grow against. Satisfaction is stasis, and stasis is the antithesis of growth.

“The obstacle is the way” is another phrase that points to the same truth.

There’s an obvious problem with taking this truth to heart. Follow it to its logical conclusion, and it tells you to have as many problems as you can possibly handle. If “what does not kill me makes me stronger”, doesn’t it follow that I should get beat and maimed to just short of death as often as possible? I’ll get so strong!

No big problem. Truisms always break down when you take them as absolutes. Take it as a general rule, not a necessary fact, and things ought to look better. But even this softer version has its problems.

I think about this most often in terms of parenting. I grew up a poor, undocumented immigrant moving from one shitty neighborhood in Queens to another. I left home at 16 and had to make it on my own from there on (admittedly, with a lot of help – but it was help I had to find). It was rough at times. There were other aspects of my early years, not worth going into here, which made for a less than ideal childhood.

It’s obvious to me that whatever strength of character I have was built partially out of these hardships. The Nietzsche quote applies. I am genuinely grateful for those hardships. I wouldn’t be who I am – and wouldn’t have my strength – if it weren’t for them.

My adulthood is much better, so far. Got a comfortable middle-class thing going for me. And so, of course, the idea is to have children and give them everything I’ve worked so hard to achieve. Part of why you work hard to build yourself up is so you can raise children in better conditions than you had. Maybe that’s not true for everyone, but it is for me.

But then, if I raise my children in the middle-class comfort I’ve attained for myself, don’t I rob them of precisely those things I’m so grateful for? Don’t I make things easy for them, when it’s hardships that are most valuable to our growth?

It’s easy to answer that just because my children may grow up in relative economic comfort doesn’t mean they will have an easy childhood. There may be other kinds of hardships. But this only sidesteps the issue. Because I don’t want my children to have (major) hardships of any sort, economic or not. Hardships suck.

These problems get worked out in real-time, of course. There’s no general answer here, I don’t think. Most likely, I’ll do my best to give my children the easiest possible life, but they’ll find their way to suffering one way or the other.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *