Strength, Weakness, and Damage or Why I Disagree With Nietzsche

Any of us who has suffered, either physically or psychologically or emotionally or in any other way, has most likely heard the Nietzsche quote that has become an inspiring platitude: “That which does not kill you makes you stronger.”  And inspiring it is – I must admit to loving this quote when I was young and green, before life had showed me some of its uglier faces.  But now, having been on the receiving end of sympathetic head shaking and encouraging platitudes galore I have heard this little goody from Nietzsche enough times to actually make me think about it.  And, Nietzsche, my little friend, you’ve got it wrong. 

I have come to realize that there are some things that don’t kill but irrevocably weaken – the body and the spirit – and leave permanent damage.  This is not something we like to say; this is a painful and stark reality that does the opposite of embracing the (admittedly appealing and friendly feel-good) theory that differences among people are embraced only when they reflect positive aspects of us.  There are some times, some things that leave us less than we were before.  A broken bone can heal and be stronger than it was originally.  A bone can also be broken so badly, or not treated correctly, or heal wrong and always be weak or twisted or painful.  In the same way psychological pain can leave us stronger or weaker.  Why is it that what damages one person improves another?  Why is it that in some people a thick scar weakens and in others it does nothing?  I don’t have the answers, I just know that it happens. 

It is an ugly truth that we can’t control everything, we can’t fix everything, we can’t heal everything.  But it is also true that being weak or damaged doesn’t necessarily mean being a lesser human being.  A man with a limp is no less a man.  A woman with a fearful heart is no less a woman.  More important than weakness or strength; being perfect or being damaged; being whole or broken is being. 

So, Nietzsche was wrong about suffering making us stronger but that’s ok.  More generations of people will be inspired through hard times with his famous quote.  And many will continue to be inspired by this William Ernest Henley poem, Invictus, which I appreciate so much more than one sentence platitudes.  Enjoy.  Be strong, or not.  Just be.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
for my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance,
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance,
My head is bloodied, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishment the scroll.
I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.

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4 Responses to Strength, Weakness, and Damage or Why I Disagree With Nietzsche

  1. bobbiblogger says:

    Hmmmm… I’m not sure Nietzche isn’t right. I’ve observed that oftentimes when a person suffers a permanent physical injury, the result will be a strengthening of character traits like compassion or patience. Hence, the body is weaker, but the soul is stronger.

    • I would agree that sometimes happens. But I have also seen people who are weakened, either physically or psychologically, by damage, either physical or psychological, in such a way that they are not strong enough to withstand more. I don’t deny that some suffering can strengthen some people. But it certainly doesn’t always, and certainly not for everyone.

      • orpheus says:

        The actual quote is “That which does not kill ME makes ME stronger.” Another quote of Nietzsche’s, in reference to there being no objective morality, no objective “good and bad”, is “What is bad? All that proceeds from weakness”. Nietzsche is not asking for a complete healing, but as bobbiblogger said, it’s about character and an internal strength built up in face of the inevitable pains, losses, struggles and defeats of life. Some people are permanently broken, and Nietzsche might consider them “weak”.

        You may ask, what about the death of a child breaking someone? Would N. consider that person weak as well? Only in the sense that they are weaker than the event that broke them. Some people are broken by very little, N. sought to be the type who it took much to break.

  2. bobbiblogger says:

    You’re right — some people are permanently “broken.”

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