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Dubious Maxim 2: What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger

Dubious Maxim - What doesn't kill us makes us stronger

This bit of machismo wisdom originated with Nietzsche, who was a professional scoffer. His book, Twilight of the Idols (1888), subtitled How to Philosophize with a Hammer, begins with a section called “Axioms and Arrows,” in which Axiom 8 reads, “From the military school of life. – That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” But Nietzsche deplored the military school of life, which everywhere thrives on deceit and bravado, received ideas and absurd mottos repeated until they become articles of faith. Ten years earlier, in Human, All Too Human, he’d looked forward to the day “when people distinguished by wars and victories and the highest achievement of military order and intelligence…exclaim of their own free will, ‘We break the sword!’, and smash the entire military establishment down to its lowest foundations.” That didn’t happen, (hasn’t happened yet), and so Twilight of the Idols (a twist on Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods) is his own hammer blow against received ideas. Axiom 7, for example: “Which is it? Is man only a blunder of God? Or is God only a blunder of man?” We know which side Nietzsche was on. And Axiom 12: “Man does not aspire to happiness; only the Englishman does that.”

A small knowledge of biology or psychology tells us that that which almost kills us does not strengthen us: a heart that recovers from a heart attack is not a stronger heart, and a shattered psyche does not make a person stronger. My father suffered a massive heart attack when he was forty-five, lived another thirty years with a perpetual decline of his faculties, and died at seventy-six of congestive heart failure. He was like Iris’s father in Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, who came home from the First World War having been wounded three times, steps off the train with a mangled leg and missing half his face. He takes to drinking and serial infidelity, lets the family business slide, and ignores his children and wife. “He was a shattered wreck,” recalls Iris, “as witness the shouts in the dark, the nightmares, the sudden fits of range, the bowl or glass thrown against the wall or floor….He was broken, and needed mending…” But of course there was no mending. That which didn’t kill him actually did, in the end, kill him.

Psychologist Noam Shpancer, writing in Psychology Today, notes that “we are not stronger in the broken places. What doesn’t kill us makes us weaker.” He points out that “developmental research has shown convincingly that traumatized children are more, not less, likely to be traumatized again,” and cites Barbara Ganzel, principle researcher in a study that found that New Yorkers who lived a mile and a half from the World Trade Centre on 9/11 had significantly higher amygdala activity when shown photographs of fearful faces – meaning they reacted more violently to the images – than people who lived 200 miles from it. “We have known for a long time that trauma exposure can lead to subsequent vulnerability to mental health disorders years after the trauma,” said Ganzel. Shpancer points out that street dogs do not make good anti-terrorism dogs; they are unpredictable and untrainable because they have been traumatized on the streets: they are Post Traumatic Stress Dogs. We have friends who rescued a street dog from the Dominican Republic: Pepe is a friendly, lively dog, but after a year he still pisses on the floor and barks insanely whenever his owners leave the house. He was not made stronger by the trauma of being a street dog.

Will the millions of people who contracted Covid-19 and recovered from it be more resistant to infection when the second wave of coronavirus sweeps over us? There are those who think they will, that recovering from Covid-19 confers immunity to the virus; these are the people who lobbied various governments to enact a “herd immunity” policy, by which protocols such as social distancing, the closing of stores and restaurants and even some essential services would be withdrawn, allowing people to resume working and socializing. They think that if we let the virus run rampant through the general population, those most vulnerable to infection –the elderly and anyone with weakened immune systems – would be isolated and protected (in other words, shunted out of sight and left to die), but everyone else could get on with their lives as if the coronavirus were no more dangerous than an ordinary flu virus. After a certain time, the strong ones — those left standing when the pandemic withdrew – would be immune to the virus and the disease would disappear.

Leaving aside the moral implications of this policy – no, let’s not leave it aside, let’s take a moment to contemplate the following remark by Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, on May 4, who said: “Certainly we all want to save as many lives as possible, but we have to ask ourselves, to what end?” For politicians, herd immunity is good for the economy.

But in any case, herd immunity isn’t scientifically sound. Virologists and epidemiologists say there is no evidence that a person who survives Covid-19 has developed immunity to re-infection. While it is true that the immune systems of those infected with the virus develop antibodies to fight off that particular invasion, those antibodies are effective for only a few months, after which the victim can again become a victim. Remember how we used to think that having chicken pox as a child meant we wouldn’t get chicken pox when we were adults? In a way, we were right, we don’t get chicken pox again; we get shingles. Even that may not be true about this species of influenza virus. Jean-François Delfraissy, head of France’s science advisory board, notes that the most serious symptoms related to Covid-19 often occur after the patient has developed antibodies: “It may be,” he says, “that the antibodies actually increase the risk of the disease becoming worse.”

Those who advocate an early end to Covid-19 protocols – protesters in North Carolina, for example, where the governor has allowed citizens to return to such essential workplaces as hair and nail salons and tattoo parlours, or shoulder-to-shoulder sunbathers in Toronto’s Trinity-Bellwood Park, would do well to read Twilight of the Idols as they soak up the rays. I recommend the opening paragraph of “The Problem of Socrates,” in which Nietzsche asks: “Does wisdom appear on earth the way a vulture is attracted by a slight whiff of carrion?”

1 Comment

  1. Larry Scanlan

    “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” ranks right up there with “It is what it is.” Isn’t that why self-help books continue to sell? Humans seek simple answers to complex questions, questions for which there are often no answers. “C’est comme ca,” as the French say, actually makes sense.

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