17 May 2018

"That which doesn't kill you"

In a thoughtful Vanity Fair essay, Christopher Hitchens, who has terminal esophageal carcinoma, debunks an old maxim.
[O]ne thing that grave illness does is to make you examine familiar principles and seemingly reliable sayings. And there’s one that I find I am not saying with quite the same conviction as I once used to: In particular, I have slightly stopped issuing the announcement that “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”..

In fact, I now sometimes wonder why I ever thought it profound. It is usually attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche: Was mich nicht umbringt macht mich stärker. In German it reads and sounds more like poetry, which is why it seems probable to me that Nietzsche borrowed it from Goethe, who was writing a century earlier...

In the remainder of his life, however, Nietzsche seems to have caught an early dose of syphilis, very probably during his first-ever sexual encounter, which gave him crushing migraine headaches and attacks of blindness and metastasized into dementia and paralysis. This, while it did not kill him right away, certainly contributed to his death and cannot possibly, in the meanwhile, be said to have made him stronger...

[re radiation therapy]: To say that the rash hurt would be pointless. The struggle is to convey the way that it hurt on the inside. I lay for days on end, trying in vain to postpone the moment when I would have to swallow. Every time I did swallow, a hellish tide of pain would flow up my throat, culminating in what felt like a mule kick in the small of my back. I wondered if things looked as red and inflamed within as they did without. And then I had an unprompted rogue thought: If I had been told about all this in advance, would I have opted for the treatment? There were several moments as I bucked and writhed and gasped and cursed when I seriously doubted it...

I have come to know that feeling all right: the sensation and conviction that the pain will never go away and that the wait for the next fix is unjustly long. Then a sudden fit of breathlessness, followed by some pointless coughing and then—if it’s a lousy day—by more expectoration than I can handle...

So far, I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable decline. I repeat, this is no more than what a healthy person has to do in slower motion. It is our common fate. In either case, though, one can dispense with facile maxims that don’t live up to their apparent billing.
Addendum: Hitchens died on the day this post was published.  A brief memorial biography is available in this BBC column, or a more comprehensive bio at Wikipedia.

Reposted from 2011 in response to receiving a school alumni bulletin in which an interview offered the old maxim as a guideline for life:
Q: If you had a theme song what would it be?
A: "What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger" by Kelly Clarkson. Sums up my life in a nutshell.
Like Hitchens, I'm at an age where I can do quite well without "things that don't kill me."


  1. I've always liked "That which doesn't kill me only delays the inevitable." But yes, even that is over-optimistic.

  2. I'm going to miss Hitchens' snarky, bombastic pronunciations on things. He's self-satisfied enough to just about drive one crazy; but he IS as smart as a whip, and far too right about many things a good deal of the time.

  3. "I repeat, this is no more than what a healthy person has to do in slower motion. It is our common fate. In either case, though, one can dispense with facile maxims that don’t live up to their apparent billing."

    Sounds like something lifted from a recent read - "The Conspiracy Against The Human Race" by Thomas Ligotti (if you don't mind similarly-bleak pronouncements you'll probably find it enjoyably thought-provoking).

  4. It was just announced that Christopher Hitchens has lost his battle with cancer. RIP.


  5. This makes me sad. Although it was inevitable. Whether or not you found yourself in agreement with Hitchens, his acerbic wit and straight, honest discussion were traits I seldom find these days.

  6. Thanks for the heads-up, Chris; I've added a note with your link to the post.

  7. For some reason, I never took that quote literally. I thought it just meant that when you get through really hard times (that you imagine you can't), you might emerge stronger for it. Not talking physical strength here.

  8. Not a fan of this quote. Neither a 150-mph motorcycle crash nor a head-on collision in a car killed me (although it was a near thing in both cases) but they left me physically weaker. Can't really say I'm any tougher mentally, either, though I'm much more cautious these days.

  9. I read this every few months, I have it bookmarked.

    Hitch is exactly right, he often was.

  10. And bones are not stronger after they've been broken, either. As long as they heal properly, they can return to normal. But that's a significant 'IF', and does not address tendon and ligament damage, or non-union, or other disease that inhibits bone healing...


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