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What does not kill you makes you ... what?

I have been thinking about the saying, “What does not kill you makes you stronger,” and I am not sure that is always true.

I recently read something written on this subject by the renowned author Christopher Hitchens, who recently succumbed  to cancer, in which he made the point that in his personal experience with cancer, that “-ism” was not true for him.

I agree with him completely on the issue of not being physically stronger after fighting cancer. Many cancer treatments have long-term permanent side effects that will always be there.

But, what about other situations?

I have used this saying myself, and I think we all want it to be true when we have survived some sort of tribulation. But, is it true?

Perhaps on some level we have more emotional endurance for unpleasantness after we have gone through a life-threatening event, but even that is suspect. What does not kill you often scares the wits out of you and confronting your own mortality in a crisis often makes you realize that you may be more vulnerable than you thought. The fact is, what does not kill you almost kills you, and the short-term effect of an encounter like that is often that you are alive but greatly weakened and then you still have to come to terms with those permanent side effects.

What I know for certain is that what does not kill you changes who you are.

I don’t think any of us is ever the same person after we have survived something dreadful, whether a disease or an accident. We may survive the event because of treatment or because sheer strength of will, or both, but, regardless, we are different. We may be completely recovered, but we now know a reality we did not know before  — it can happen to us — and that changes our world forever.

I think we prefer the “what does not kill you makes you stronger” idea because we do not want to feel like victims of our situation. We want to be seen as fighters, wobbling to our feet for another round, no matter how many times we’ve been knocked down.

Maybe what would be smarter to say is, “what does not kill you makes you not dead, and hopefully a little wiser,” and being wiser is probably more helpful in the long run with issues of life and death. Being wiser and thus more realistic about your capabilities is not a weakness.

One interesting place where we see this played out is when someone who has had something nearly fatal does not want to go back for follow-up visits with doctors because they do not want to deal with or “give energy to” the possibility of negative outcomes.

I can identify with that because I have been there. However, if you do go back and get bad news you realize that going back may have saved your life. If you had not gone back, you might have felt you had a more positive attitude, but a shorter life, which was probably not your goal.

So, in conclusion, I think i’ll stop saying, “What does not kill you makes you stronger,” and say instead, “What does not kill me makes me aware of the possibilities,” and hope that serves me well as I go forward to whatever is in store for me.  

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