This was one conversation that sparked at our last meeting that was interesting. I’d like to pitch a view on it in one of the areas I know a fair bit about, through the philosophy of Nietzsche.
A recent study may have confirmed the well-known Nietzsche maxim “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” actually holds some truth (http://phys.org/news/2010-10-doesnt-stronger.html). In a nutshell, the study found that those who had suffered adversity (and had not been killed) at some point were more resistant to the impact of negative events in their life. IMO, it seems that what’s happening here is that when we’ve experienced some of the worst in life, we break all our complacency that we have and come out appreciating the positive more than ever.
This maxim has found it’s way into a mainstream audience, even as a verse in one of Kelly Clarkson’s songs “Stronger”. It seems that when people run with the idea that their suffering is something that can be battled and overcome, that they can come out stronger, and it really empowers them. A patient who battled cancer said that he found the words of Kelly’s song to be really empowering, and it really suited his fight (http://healthland.time.com/2012/05/15/young-cancer-patients-may-get-a-boost-and-a-visit-from-kelly-clarkson/).
But how far did Nietzsche take this idea? “You want, if possible – and there is no more insane “if possible” – to abolish suffering. And we? It really seems that we would rather have it higher and worse than ever. Well-being as you understand it – that is no goal, that seems to us an end, a state that soon makes man ridiculous and contemptible – that makes his destruction desirable. The discipline of suffering, of great suffering – do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far?” (via Beyond Good and Evil).
So maybe you’re thinking, why the flip would Nietzsche want us to endure suffering? Why was he personally fixated on thinking it enhances us? I think it’s because he himself overcame many events in his life that would shatter most people, and it motivated him to create something positive out of these events. At a young age, both his brother and his father passed away, his true love Lou Salome rejected him, he fell out with his friends Richard Wagner and Paul Ree who he kept the upmost admiration and respect for, he fell out with his sister for having anti-semitic views and refused to attend her wedding for marrying an anti-semite, he was infatuated by Wagner’s wife Cosima by her intelligence – which he kept secret (which leaked after his collapse), and finally he suffered from ill physical health for a large part of his life, where he described nausea, pain throughout the body, eyesight problems and migraine headaches. Here’s his reflection of these events in his self-biography Ecco Homo;
“Agreed that I am a decadent, I am also the very reverse. Among other things there is this proof: I always instinctively select the proper remedy in preference to harmful ones; whereas the decadent, as such, invariably chooses those remedies which are bad for him. As a whole I was healthy, but in certain details I was a decadent. The energy with which I forced myself to absolute solitude, and to an alienation from my customary habits of life; the self-discipline that forbade me to be pampered, waited on, and doctored-all this betrays the absolute certainty of my instincts in regard to what at that time was most needful to me. I placed myself in my own hands, I restored myself to health: to do this, the first condition of success, as every physiologist will admit, is that the man be basically sound. A typically morbid nature cannot become healthy at all, much less by his own efforts. On the other hand, to an intrinsically sound nature, illness may even act as a powerful stimulus to life, to an abundance of life. It is thus that I now regard my long period of illness: it seemed then as if I had discovered life afresh, my own self included. I tasted all/ good and even trifling things in a way in which others could not very well taste them-out of my Will to Health and to Life I made my philosophy”
Nietzsche re-affirms the running theme of his own efforts to overcome his suffering resulted in the increase of appreciation of his life. His senses were heightened to the positive elements of his life. His idea is also a huge part of his disgust in traditional morals such as pity for those who suffer, as to Nietzsche, pitying people will result in a prolonging of one’s suffering rather than strengthening themselves by enduring it. He not only said that we must endure suffering to come out stronger to replace this kind of counter-intuitive morality, but as a general rule we should enjoy our lives by learning to replace suffering with a holistic affirmation to life – which he demonstrated best as he coined the phrase Amor Fati; which literally means a Love of Fate.
In reflection, I don’t think we should go and inflict hideous amounts of suffering onto people just because it may result in happiness afterwards, but I think the reality of life is that we’re going to come up against events in our life that we have no control over that cause us suffering or will inevitably result in suffering. So why not make something positive out of it? Why not overcome it and turn it into your own strength? What do you guys think?
Too long didn’t read? Here’s Alain de Botton’s short documentry on Nietzsche’s view of hardship;