What doesn’t kill you…
At the end of last week, Windows 10 tried to introduce some updates to our essential family computer which couldn’t cope with them. (Mac users, please don’t gloat.)
After two very frustrating days and at least four calls to the helpline, we are almost back running, having had to wipe everything off the PC and go back to factory settings. (I’d saved essential stuff like PCC minutes and Ragaris manuscripts, but a lot of family stuff is gone.)
I’m not convinced that I reacted well, since my main response was mentally to compose angry emails to Bill Gates demanding apology, compensation etc, which I don’t think I’ll be able to send. (Does anyone have his email address?) I was also disconcerted by the undercurrent of annoyance/worry/frustration that this problem imparted to my whole day(s).
But, of course, what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.
In the BBC documentary “Labour: the Summer that Changed Everything” last week, an apparently intelligent and articulate MP quoted this expression as his current motto. (Oddly, the trauma that hadn’t killed him was the fact that both he and his party had done better than expected in the June election, but let that pass.)
I had heard this phrase before. Apparently it’s a quotation from Friedrich Nietzsche’s 1888 book “Twilight of the Idols”, and has been popularised in a song lyric by Kelly Clarkson.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
It’s stirring – life bashes us, but we get up, and bash back harder!
We react to trouble with determination and aggression.
The expression is very popular, and may inspire courage. And it’s probably true that going through life without any difficulties or traumas will leave one sadly unfitted for major disaster when and if it comes.
But otherwise the phrase is preposterous, is it not? People are not strengthened, physically or emotionally, by almost-dying. It’s the already frail who die in flu epidemics; it’s the abused who (tragically) often have difficulties forming future relationships; it’s the very tired who snap; and so on. I don’t know much about Nietzsche, but I don’t see that he’s the person whose views I want to follow or popularise.
Is there also a danger in the implication that if we’re not made stronger by suffering, then we’re inadequate, along the lines of the “battling cancer and winning” attitude, which makes natural death into a personal failure?
A similar view to Nietzsche’s is expressed in William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus – https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/51642/invictus. If you don’t have time for the whole thing, this is the poem from which we get the phrases “my head is bloody but unbowed”, and it ends “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.”
Wikipedia says “Invictus”, which presumably means “Undefeated”, evokes “Victorian stoicism and ‘stiff upper lip’”. I dare say it does, but it also evokes the idea that trouble is the Enemy which we fight, and by fighting we assert mastery. Many Victorians would have found its self-assertion and independence from God horrifying.
The Christian version of Nietzsche and Henley is that troubles are, or can be, character-building. “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint…” (Romans 5:3-5). “Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness… Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life.” (James 1: 2-3 and 11).
So how do we face trouble? It may not always be appropriate to react in the same way.
With the aggression of bared teeth – with the endurance of gritted teeth – with denial (“I have not winced nor cried aloud”) – with patience, which I define as endurance with hope – with resignation, which is endurance with a gentle sigh – with submission, which is endurance with joy – with determination to learn?
Resignation was popular with the Victorians, but this virtue (can it be called that?) is very much out of favour at the moment. This is probably because it is easily used by the oppressor to keep the oppressed quiet. Slaves and victims of abuse shouldn’t be resigned, we say now; they should resist.
But some of them in the past literally could not resist without being killed. If they chose to be “resigned” rather than spending their entire lives in hopeless rage, we shouldn’t blame them.
It’s not going to do us any harm to be resigned, otherwise known as Putting Up With, the British weather, that sad state of affairs that means it often rains, even when it doesn’t rain it’s often not sunny, you can never be sure what it’s going to do, and the hours of light and dark vary hugely between summer and winter.
We should not be resigned to, or put up with, oppression of other people.
When it comes to our own trouble, we can even choose to submit, thinking of “our whole life [as] a profitable penance”, in the expression of Julian of Norwich, or hoping that God’s ”grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9).
I’m not quite sure when, or how, to do this, and I still want to send a cross email to Bill Gates.
Love from the PPI Blogger