Wednesday, April 17, 2013

What Doesn't Kill You....

Nietzsche said it first: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Christopher Hitchens was pondering the question when he was dying. He did not live to answer it.

Then, Kelly Clarkson offered the definitive interpretation in a song entitled: What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger.”

We are prone to believe that great minds get things right. We grant a special authority to geniuses. We do not ask whether great thinkers like Nietzsche are right or wrong. We are more concerned with whether we are worthy of  their ideas.

The Economist reports that when a researcher at Penn State University put Nietzsche’s idea to the test he discovered that it was wrong.

David Almeida demonstrated that being subjected to small traumas over time will more likely undermine you emotional well-being than contribute to your strength of character.

Of course, it might also be the case that people who have strong character do not allow themselves to suffer insults and injuries, rudeness and abuse.

When Almeida first interviewed his research subjects he asked them to evaluate their moods. Then he asked them to report how often they felt stressed over everyday situations.

The Economist explains that:

These stresses included arguments; situations in which participants felt they could have argued but chose not to; problems at work; problems at home; and feeling upset over a problem that a friend was struggling with. 

Then, ten years later Almeida re-interviewed the subjects who were still alive and were willing to participate.

The result:

When he and his colleagues analysed the answers, they realised that, contrary to Nietzsche’s dictum, seemingly trivial daily stresses in the past had taken a long-term toll on mental health. They found that the more often people (who had not then been treated for a disorder) felt nervous, fidgety, worthless or hopeless ten years ago, the higher were their chances of having developed a disorder in the interim.

This tells us that the path to mental health passes through stress management. If you do not subject yourself to unnecessary stress, to negative people, to minor slights, to insults and rudeness you will live longer and healthier.

So far, so good.

But, think about this. When patients undergo strict Freudian analysis they are subjected to rudeness and insults.

When someone refuses to converse with you, refuses to look you in the eye, refuses to answer your questions… he is being rude. He is treating you as worthless.

If that is true, then Almeida’s research shows that psychoanalysis cannot make you stronger or healthier. In fact, it will do just the opposite.

And now, Kelly Clarkson gets the last word:


Anonymous said...

re: "The Economist reports that when a researcher at Penn State University put Nietzsche’s idea to the test he discovered that it was wrong."

It seems silly to me to try to classify an idea as right or wrong. There are obviously examples where you will find it seems to be true, and examples where it seems to be false. It is a question of discerning contexts for each, pros and cons, and analyse them collectively to extract the wisdom and naivity of an idea.

To me its better to see the best ideas as expressions within divergent values, like comfort versus challenge.

Like the book "Secret garden", a boy is taught he is sickly and needs to be coddled, and eventually escapes from that false belief.

So if you are being contained by a false belief, if there are dangers around you that are real, but exaggerated, then you can't just listen to that inner voice that says "This is dangerous" and retreat, but instead ask "What are the risks?" But even there, sometimes controlled experiments are not enough, and you have to jump a bit over your head, where you can't instantly retreat from danger, even like social danger like being mocked or shamed, where perhaps it can feel like irreversible consequences.

On the other hand, I had an extroverted friend who said he'd try anything once, and I totally didn't believe that was smart. Like drug use scares me, and especially illegal drugs where you have no idea what you're really taking.

Even if legal, addiction and self-destructive impulses are a danger. I had one friend who was angry her husband for smoking, so she started smoking too, and then one day he quit, and she found herself unable to quit.

So finding the will to overpower addiction is a good test. If you pass the test, you can feel mastery, but if you fail the test, if you are mastered by your addiction or fear, then you can get weaker and weaker, and that downward spiral can kill you. So some experiments may not be worth challenging for everyone.

I imagine you could discern the difference, if you ask the right inner questions. When you are "acting out", letting your passions control you, you are setting yourself up for a downward spiral.

Overall I'd say there are parts of ourselves that we may never see unless the right stressors come along, gaps we will never jump unless it seems life or death to not try. But if "what doesn't kill us" can never be mastered, and we never get stronger, then strength must come from calling out that truth and changing course, and changing course itself might be about "making me stronger".

Anonymous said...

"It seems silly to me to try to classify an idea as right or wrong."

Que? Knowing what is right and what is wrong is fundamental to survival and success in life.

n.n said...

What doesn't break you makes you stronger.