Hitchens dispels the bromide that suffering makes you stronger

December 10, 2011 • 1:17 pm

Thank Ceiling Cat that Christopher Hitchens is still among us, and still writing.  His latest piece at Vanity Fair, “Trial of the will,” an obvious play on Leni Riefenstahl’s movie.  His purpose is to dispel the myth that suffering is empowering and ennobling:

Before I was diagnosed with esophageal cancer a year and a half ago, I rather jauntily told the readers of my memoirs that when faced with extinction I wanted to be fully conscious and awake, in order to “do” death in the active and not the passive sense. And I do, still, try to nurture that little flame of curiosity and defiance: willing to play out the string to the end and wishing to be spared nothing that properly belongs to a life span. However, one 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.”

Hitchens, whose health has declined but not his prose, graphically describes the sufferings he’s endured in hopes of a cure.   It’s ineffably sad; he has so much more to say!

I am typing this having just had an injection to try to reduce the pain in my arms, hands, and fingers. The chief side effect of this pain is numbness in the extremities, filling me with the not irrational fear that I shall lose the ability to write. Without that ability, I feel sure in advance, my “will to live” would be hugely attenuated. I often grandly say that writing is not just my living and my livelihood but my very life, and it’s true. Almost like the threatened loss of my voice, which is currently being alleviated by some temporary injections into my vocal folds, I feel my personality and identity dissolving as I contemplate dead hands and the loss of the transmission belts that connect me to writing and thinking.

Hitch won’t be with us much longer, I fear—though I hope otherwise—and although he may not consider his sufferings empowering to him, I think they are to us.  If nothing else, it shows us how we should meet our end: fighting, but with grace.

From Vanity Fair: "The author in Houston, where he is receiving treatment at the MD Anderson Cancer Center."

h/t: Michael

38 thoughts on “Hitchens dispels the bromide that suffering makes you stronger

  1. “It is not true that suffering ennobles the character; happiness does that sometimes, but suffering, for the most part, makes men petty and vindictive.”

    — W. Somerset Maugham

  2. I perhaps live in a cushy enclave, but I’d always heard “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” in emotional, figurative terms, not physiologically.

    I.e., you lose a job, have a bad break-up, you move on and find you can survive and work/love again. And that’s generally true.

    I can’t think of an example–other than Hitchens’ essay–where the aphorism is understood literally, physically. I mean, did anyone ever really think surviving a heart attack makes you stronger?

    1. Piet Hein’s version doesn’t say suffering ennobles:


      Here is a fact
      that should help you fight
      a bit longer:
      Things that don’t act-
      ually kill you outright
      make you stronger.

      Hitchens’ suffering is killing him, not giving him strength. (He has plenty of that kind of strength already, for which we can all be grateful.)

    2. Nonsense! The emotional is physiological. What’s more, a bad break-up or a job loss can leave one permanently weakened or worse. A major loss can be something from which one never truly recovers. It can color the entire rest of ones life. If you come away from such a situation and feel stronger then you should consider yourself lucky because you are the exception, not the rule.

      “That which does not kill me makes me stronger” is a naive and ignorant aphorism and always has been. It is an offense to anyone who has ever been brought down so low by an emotional event that they are never truly themselves again. The event need not be a heart attack for one to be unable to fully recover.

      I speak not only from personal experience, but also from professional experience.

  3. I’ve always detested that saying- the whole whatever-doesn’t-kill-you line. Whenever it’s used I always amend it with “…unless it leaves you horribly, terribly maimed.” Which usually gets half chuckles and half private conclusions that I’m an asshole.

    The kind of suffering that makes you stronger is pretty uniformly the result of progressively expanding the envelope of your capabilities- exercise and training, overcoming a phobia, gaining adult independence, coming to terms with previously unpleasant truths, even brushes with potential danger- not usually from the universe electing in its stochastic indifference, or people in their malice, to tear at you- and the people who make a habit of asserting otherwise have a tendency to be that heinous combination of insufferable cheerfulness and negligible compassion.

    1. insufferable cheerfulness and negligible compassion

      QFT. Of course, it is better to try to have a positive outlook/demeanor as much as possible. But it’s also true that, often, those who think everything is hunky-dory are either woefully ignorant or pathologically apathetic.

  4. I think that the saying “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is hyperbole that mostly relates to training.

    Things like athletic training can be tough and painful, but if done properly, can make someone stronger.

    One might say the same about graduate school, at least in my case. (though I mostly enjoyed it anyway; it was hard).

    Of course, this kind of suffering (illness, torture) is bad and not noble in any way, and some religions try to make the claim that it is.

  5. His courage and fortitude may be empowering, but his suffering is not. I would not take away the former for anything, but if I could wave a magic wand and take away his suffering — thinking only of my sake, my empowerment — I would do so without hesitation.

  6. I hope for his sake that Hitchens dies before he loses his ability to write.
    I wonder if perhaps he has an exit stradegy for when that ability is lost and his life’s purpose comes to an end.

  7. I have always thought the sentiment about what doesn’t kill you making you stronger was mostly wishful thinking. Sometimes it’s true and sometimes you’re left a mere husk of your former self, of course as the saying itself acknowledges, sometimes you also die. Even if you are stronger you’ve paid a heavy price for it.

    The world cannot afford to lose Hitch, and I am very sad about the prospect.

  8. “what does not kill me makes me stronger” Nietzsche was referring only to pain & what attitude one should have towards ones own suffering. He found that the best way was to accept pain as an experience in itself ~ it’s part of the spectrum of living & one should not let it consume you ~ life has still to be lived despite grief & despite physical pain.

    Today, in the wealthy first world, we have the safety net of drugs & social security, but in Nietzsche’s time if you didn’t get on with business you didn’t eat nor have the makings of a warm hearth. A cruel world of remorseless necessity.

    I think there’s a lot more in Christopher yet. I hope you’ve all thought about sending him a Christmas greeting of some description.

  9. When your doctor gives you a feeble smile and answers your question, “How much time do I have Doc?” everything changes. Death is no longer in the indefinite future. A person might want to search the literature to see what great secular minds had to say about their imminent death. Hitchens thoughts will, no doubt, be of great help to those who have heard the doctor’s estimate. The old saying, “Being dead is easy, it’s the dying part I fear,” is the only thing I can think of right now. The one salvation is to know, as Hitchens surly must, that you have left something of immense value behind for humanity. How I wish I could say that. I hope to leave with a smile.

    1. Speculating here, but I think one reason is that suffering puts someone in a position to look for help, which proponents of religion would claim their god offers.

      When one is always healthy and happy, the need to call on a “higher power” is arguably reduced.

    2. And where do you get that from? Which religion(s)?

      Suffering, like so many things, is neutral.

      That is like saying “death is good,” or “life is good.”

      More Americans are miserable than are poor Mexicans …. Does that make secular Catholicism better for you than atheism?

      1. Wayne –
        What planet did you just arrive from? That is cemented in the foundation of christianity. Its the core of the whole christian mess. Have you never heard the jebus myth?

        Still Learning –
        I think the untold reason is/was to keep the poor from revolting against the excesses of the wealthy.

        The christians give various excuses such as; it results in better placement in the cloud life, it is punishment for transgressions in the before life, its part of sky daddy’s plan, to gain insight for a special assignment which sky daddy needs help with, to help the sufferer become more like a jebus, various others.

  10. I sure do appreciate this man’s honesty and wish him strength in his fight against this terrible disease.

    Selfishly, perhaps, since cancer has cut a swath through my male blood relatives, I hope I live to see the day when we can proclaim cancer invariably curable.

  11. No matter how physically diminished he becomes, his thick skin, broad shoulders and lion heart never seem to fail. This essay alone would prove that, even if, by some inexcusable failure of comprehension, the bracing clarity, moral courage and unflinching candor of his writing had not already made it apparent to you. He is a unique and irreplaceable voice of humanism.

  12. I am fortunate to be living in the era where icons like Hitchens were alive. And it is bitter for me to see him suffering.

  13. You can learn from a “bit” of suffering, and learning in a sense can make you stronger. As a cancer survivor, I developed a much better sense of my mortality, how people supported me, and refocused my priorities. Too bad we cannot have an experiment to see what I would be like without this experience. But I am not so naive/delusional to think that cancer was the “best” thing that happen to me…

  14. I have noticed that Hitchens already astounding prose is perhaps at its best when he writes about his illness. To have such a scintillating voice plumbing the depths of such a tragic aspect of the human condition…

  15. I have this kitchen calendar that someone gave me with sayings of Eckhart Tolle, so I been suffering from woo-woo overload for a year. Anyway, the Dec. ditty is this: “Suffering has a noble purpose: the evolution of consciousness and the burning up of the ego.”

    Do you think Hitch would agree?

  16. Two years ago, at the age of 38, I had two heart attacks and underwent a triple-bypass, caused and then necessitated by two spontaneous coronary artery dissections. As bizarre as the experience itself was, even more bizarre have been many of the reactions to the event I got (still get if I share the story). Naturally, there were all the folks who felt the need to tell me it “happened for a reason,” or that jesus had something to do with it, etc., but the craziest experiences have been people telling me I should be GRATEFUL for it. One event stands out–when an acquaintance got really angry at me one night for saying I would take it all back. As if I needed it:


    I love this piece by Hitchens, and even before my near-death experience I never liked this “oh it will make you stronger” thinking. And it drives me crazy to this day! I am glad he has written about this tendency to gloss over the bad by giving it purpose.

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