What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger?

Whether you think of Nietzsche or Kanye West when you hear the line "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger"–you probably think of it as true. Or at least I did. Short term struggle builds long term strength. Even life's toughest experiences have a redeeming quality inasmuch as it instructs or inspires or hardens or softens a person in the right away. Etc.

Christopher Hitchens is dying of cancer. He's undergoing radiation. In Vanity Fair he reflects on the maxim that I took as fact–and finds it false.

In the brute physical world, and the one encompassed by medicine, there are all too many things that could kill you, don’t kill you, and then leave you considerably weaker.

On the pain he felt:

To say that the rash hurt would be pointless. The struggle is to convey the way that it hurt on the inside. I lay for days on end, trying in vain to postpone the moment when I would have to swallow. Every time I did swallow, a hellish tide of pain would flow up my throat, culminating in what felt like a mule kick in the small of my back. I wondered if things looked as red and inflamed within as they did without. And then I had an unprompted rogue thought: If I had been told about all this in advance, would I have opted for the treatment? There were several moments as I bucked and writhed and gasped and cursed when I seriously doubted it.

He ends:

So far, I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable decline. I repeat, this is no more than what a healthy person has to do in slower motion. It is our common fate. In either case, though, one can dispense with facile maxims that don’t live up to their apparent billing.


Here's a touching book trailer about dying. I've rarely seen someone on camera who appears truly at peace in life. Lee Lipsenthal does. He passed away a couple months ago. His book, Enjoy Every Sandwich, came out last month.

5 comments on “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger?
  • But the maxim makes no comment on what *does* kill you … the point is that if we recover from such things, we have perspective on the minor ups and downs. If we don’t recover, we never see that benefit – and the maxim doesn’t apply.

  • Seeing that Kanye West’s video, “Stronger”, has had over 65 million views, there can be little doubt that more people think of him than Nietzsche when they see the line “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.

    This and the ascendancy of such dregs of our society as Kanye is proof enough for me of the triumph of barbarism in our so-called civilization.

    Corey Robin has got at least one thing right about that boozy old ex-Trotskyist, Christopher Hitchens: he was a most provincial spirit. I did appreciate the skills he demonstrated as an astronomer when he located heaven as a celestial North Korea, albeit one who believed profoundly in the “therapeutic properties of capitalism and empire”.

    Alexander Cockburn says the “dauphin of contrarianism” knew long before he became a cheerleader for George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq that he’d end up as a right-wing codger. I’d say this is a natural presentiment for a skilled polemicist who would use his persona and lacerating wit in service of the social climb.

    Scott McLemee describes how Hitchens devolved into playing ‘The Hitch’ as “a role, as a continuing performance on the public stage”. One would think such an actor would treat his main props, that is, his smoking and drinking habits, with more respect.

    A man with more poetry in his soul might have sensed that he’d lost his connection with the infinite and eternity before he was reduced to suffering the indignities of a “mattress grave”.

    On the other hand, one would expect an infinitely merciful God who was actually involved in our lives to see to it that even atheists in that position had access to enough heroin to alleviate their suffering.

    Unfortunately, there is not enough heroin in the world to mitigate the pain of watching Kanye West.

  • ‘Enjoy Every Sandwich’ was worth the read. It did however have the ‘short bursts of inspiration’ that peeve… but I wouldn’t necessarily classify them a collection of shallow advice either.

    It was more interesting to learn about the man himself, his meditation research and his journey through life and cancer. The takeaway wasn’t even really about enjoying the sandwich…more about the relationship with the sandwich.

    Thanks for the mention, I’m glad to have learned about him.

Leave A Comment

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