What Doesn't Kill You SOMETIMES Makes You Stronger.
It really all depends. Depends on what, how, when and why.
Friedrich Nietzsche famously said "That which does not kill us makes us stronger.". It has become a very popular saying in American culture; it resonates with suffering as being part of success. It's not that is wrong, is that it's overrated and simplified. Let's play a guessing game. What do all of the following have in common?
- Vaccines - Working Out (strength training or otherwise) - Practicing a Musical Instrument - Sales cold-calling - Digesting vegetable fiber and complex carbohydrates
Can you guess? Nothing? Let's expand on them:
Vaccines involve the introduction of a harmful entity into your biological system (your body), so it can recognize it and eventually fight it if there's a need for it. The reason your body can survive such hostile encounter, is because the harmful entity is in a dormant, dead or otherwise inert state incapable to truly make any long-lasting harm. The enormous upside, is that all your biological system that makes you, down to their most microscopic agents (cells) are now capable of dealing with such a real threat, once it happens to encounter it in the future, and quite successfully.
Similarly, when you practice a musical instrument, you encounter plenty of discomfort, such as developing calluses on fingers, frustration at being unable to perform a piece and/or meeting people's expectations of your performance, fatigue and other unpleasantries. The upside? You get to reproduce an aesthetic metaphor of the universe in sound. Not half bad! When you do sales cold-calling, there is plenty of discomfort, more in the form of frustration, fear of rejection or simply having to deal with the unsolicited contact, where you are the initiating party. The upside? A sale, of course. A sale, understood not only as the mere act of exchanging a product or service for money, but also as successfully picking up on a crush, getting a promotion, or simply enrolling somebody into a vision of yours. When you workout by lifting weights, you are actually creating micro tears on your muscle fibers. You are literally damaging your muscles, by stretching them beyond their existing capacity, in order to lift a weight. The upside? As long as you do it right, you become stronger! When your muscles rebuild, your muscle mass increases and so does your strength and overall health. Cardiovascular exercise works in a similar way at your cellular level: when you stretch their capacity to process more oxygen to your bloodstream, you are creating higher cardiovascular capacity down to your mitochondrial level.
Lastly, when you eat "difficult" to digest food, such as vegetable fiber and complex carbohydrates, you are literally giving your gut a hard time. The neurons and bacteria in your intestines, need to work many times harder to extract the nutrients from the food, and your biological system reacts accordingly to find the resources and processes that will be needed for the task. Because of this - here comes the upside - you will increase your microbiome, your metabolism will be more active and your health will be better overall, than if you ingest easy to digest (process and refined food) such as candy, trans fats, etc.
See the pattern now? All these seemingly hostile processes, create higher levels of function in their contextual systems. In other words, they don't kill you, they make you stronger, quite literally.
So does this mean that Nietzsche was right? Well, let's just say that the famous saying is true, but with conditions. Too much will in fact kill you, and too little will not be enough to make you stronger. Early experimental vaccines could have caused plenty of damage if the agents in it were still active enough to cause a disease; too much exercise or an excessive strain can in fact cause a serious injury; working too long without a break in sales calling can cause excessive stress and an anxiety reaction; eating something that is not digestible can cause a serious disease; and even excessive practicing without proper rest will mess up your technique, or even cause you neural damage or other related injuries. What's the point of equilibrium? How can you gauge what's too much and what's too little? How can you become stronger without killing yourself?
This is a typical Taoist dilemma: if one eats too much, one gets sick, but if one eats too little, one gets sick as well. Turns out, the point of equilibrium is that in which you are very close to malnutrition, but DEFINITELY, not becoming malnourished. Close, but not there. Always seeing it around the corner, but never quite catching up to it, or at least oscillating around it (up or down) but never too much on the dysfunctional side. The real Tao is not the one that can be named, but it must be somewhat named in order to learn or teach it.
If you are thinking this is a paradox or a contradiction, you are beginning to "understand". Don't think about the superficial or almost trivial paradox inherent of the saying itself "does not kill / get stronger" but go beyond it: self-destruction is not only present for creation, is actually a requirement. This may seem a bit depressing, and it's often easy to start having depressing thoughts like:
- Do we need 4 (8?) years of a lousy presidency so people can learn they shouldn't elect such leaders?
- Do I need to treat people strongly or in an authoritative way in order to protect them? Often from themselves? - Is violence the only answer when dealing with agents in a system that don't respond well to compassion?
- Can't we ever reach higher levels of function, goodness, or harmony (get closer to God, for those who believe), without resorting to hostile behavior?
The short answer is no. The longer answer is, it depends, and it's in fact addressed here. In summary, it all depends on the cumulative levels of trust of the system. Agents that don't trust each other, will need violence in order to function, agents that trust each other, work together to create higher levels of function. This repeats in an infinite cycle, where trust among agents increases to always create something new, from the beginning to the "end" of time. A perfect example of this is antibiotics. Antibiotics are violent by definition, they literally kill invading organisms that can't be trusted within your system. How can you circumvent antibiotics altogether? you would need to move your biological system (your body) to a new context where outside agents (bacteria) can be trusted not to harm it, or you can try to change the context so other agents in it don't need to attack you for their well-being. This is of course, easier said than done. You can do as much as you can to achieve this, but there will always be a need to reach into a potentially hostile environment (a daycare full of germs? a meeting with a competitor? planting fruit and dealing with parasites?) and still have to deal with this. In summary, we can't run away from pain, but we can learn to deal with it, until we don't have to anymore, because eventually, we chose trust and compassion rather than distrust and violence - but only when the time is right. This applies to all levels of reality, from the microscopic, to the corporate merger level. It is simply inescapable.
I cannot give you the formula for the perfect dose of equilibrium, because that would make your life not worth living. I can only tell you, that it will always be a moving target, just like the calories needed for having an optimal health are always right next to being malnourished, but never actually going there - because otherwise you will die. This pain, is your reason to live your life. Embrace it, be grateful for it and go on living.
Everything is in movement, for eternity. Whatever hurt in the past, won't necessarily hurt in the future once new levels of equilibrium are reached. While this equilibrium is temporary, this actually is never-ending cycle, and most importantly a manifestation of a much more fundamental aspect of reality, that many of us are not ready to accept. Learning how to deal with the pain we can handle, welcome it, and staying away from that which we can't, is part of reaching this point of equilibrium that is always moving, but always ruled by the same paradox. These little steps keep the universe running, for eternity.
At the end of the day, everything is going to be okay. Tomorrow will be another day, and thanks to this never-ending contradiction, things will continue to be in movement, and that's exactly what being alive is about.
Much love, Leo.