Friedrich Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” As a platitude, it’s horrible. Ask anyone who has undergone chemotherapy or the death of a child if that statement is always true, and prepare to be met with a bit of scorn – if not outright hostility. Of course it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. But as an affirmation, it works: What Nietzsche is really saying, here, is that it all comes down to attitude and resolve. It’s similar to a child’s saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” We all know how hurtful words can be. But when we understand that we have some choice and control over how we react to hurtful words or deeds, it is empowering. In the end, happiness is largely a matter of choice.
If you’re in a negative frame of mind, you are probably reading this and thinking, “Yeah, right, the woman’s a lunatic.” Real tragedy and adversity deserve acknowledgement; grieving is a normal, healthy process that should not be denied or covered up or made to feel like the expression of a major character flaw. Say the doctor diagnoses you with cancer – that’s what happened to me, last December. You can’t smile and say, with even a shred of credibility, “Yay, I have cancer!” But you can smile at the phlebotomist who manages to take a blood sample on the first try, while you’re freaking out over a little needle and threatening to kick her in the shins if she misses. You can feel loved when a friend drops everything to drive you to doctor’s appointments (and doesn’t make fun of you for freaking out over needles). You can be amazed by unexpected acts of kindness, like when friends call up and say, “We think you need a little South Carolina Chicken Perlo, it’s comfort food, and we’re bringing you some” then drop by with a huge casserole of something incredibly delicious, so you don’t have to cook dinner on a cold night – or pretty much any night for the next week. And pretty soon, everything around you starts to look more like cause for gratitude, joy, and laughter than fear and death. Even if faced with certain death, we have a choice: enjoy the time we have left, or dwell on the sad and scary inevitable. Or, as Sister Mary Ellen would say, there’s decision by indecision – we can die while waiting to figure out which choice to make.
In my case, I’m grateful for advancements in medical science that mean I get to worry more about getting hit by an iceberg in the Gulf of Mexico when I’m 87 than about dying of cancer this year.
Recognition of what is and what is not within our control or influence is important; it helps us to narrow our focus and concentrate our efforts where they can do the most good. And knowing that we really can have the last word every time we react to what happens to us can help us feel less lost and out of control.