Frederick Nietzsche declared, “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”
Reality is different and far more nuanced. What doesn’t kill you is likely to be painful, life-changing, and unrecoverable. Suddenly, an ability to live what was believed to be a normal life and an ability to move freely throughout the world has suddenly, unexpectedly, and drastically been limited or even fundamentally eliminated. A harsh life awaits many of us, and we are anything but stronger or better — we simply endure and try to make the best of it.
Life is broken sharply in two — before and after. With sensitivity, insight, and honesty, there may be a way to reconfigure life to be as good as possible. But fortitude, defiance, and discipline have their limits.
Nietzsche somehow thinks that if you tell God your plans, He doesn’t laugh so much as nod and say, metaphorically, “then get on with it and see how good it turns out.”
Life’s second half after trauma is far more nuanced. Demons are everywhere and psychological vulnerabilities that come with trauma become magnified and profound. Stress, anger, deep feelings of loss, estrangement, and remorse can spiral into harmful actions to oneself and loved ones.
But, coping mechanisms, especially fortitude, defiance, and discipline, can create some measure of accomplishment, self-worth, and even a modicum of happiness. These can take on a familiar sense. But, for the most part, all must be new — new friends and relationships, education and degrees, new jobs and professions, and a reboot of one’s life.
It’s an attempt to re-create something that should never have needed to be re-created with people who don’t quite fit the substance and value of those you have lost, professional activities that aren’t quite as rewarding, and personal life goals that are now high-level compromises more than anything.
You are now “almost you.”
Frederick Nietzsche had a thought experiment. He proposed that if a demon offered you the chance to live your life over again, exactly as it unfolded with the same series of events — all the joys, heartaches, and trauma, what would you say? Many people have said that, even with all the suffering and challenges, the sum total of happiness and good experiences still outweigh the bad, and they would take that deal.
Essentially, the trauma and the “that which didn’t kill me” created a pathway to what can be perceived as a better life. The demon’s question highlights that the good and bad in life are not an either-or proposition. They are inextricably linked in a dense web of cause and effect.
If we want our good life, we must recognize that it comes with all the bad. We dislike the bad, but we should know that it all has a good side. Our misfortune contains the seeds that later bloom into what we might cherish most. Trauma, with all its undeniable pain, is still worth it.
Or maybe not.
For many, something isn’t quite right about all this. Trauma doesn’t really exist along a cost-benefit continuum. We don’t know exactly what life would be without the trauma, but it’s hard to imagine the same or worse. Believing that we somehow come out better misses the point.
One may recover from dark days, but that does not mean life is better. Permanent scars run deep and are still debilitating. Some harm is too profound to ever be mitigated by some of the good in life. What is lost is never counterbalanced by something new that may be good, but never quite as deep and valuable as that which was lost.
Everything has a good side, but that does not mean the ledger is in balance. Some things are unforgivable and unforgettable. Tamping down anger, looking for distractions, and even some modicum of success in a personal or professional life do not enable us to come out ahead, and the demon’s deal doesn’t seem good for many of us.
It may be helpful to ask the demon’s question occasionally. But not always. We cherish whatever good we have in our life, but to pay such a heavy price is rarely worth it. We move on, live day-to-day, taking the good with the bad. But measuring them on a scale to see if they were worth it, and we are somehow ahead of the game is ridiculous and offensive. Some things are unforgivable and unrecoverable.
Nietzsche was wrong.