Stronger at the Break

You know the saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” right? It’s from Nietzsche. I used to think I was cool, quoting Nietzsche. (Of course it was the only quote from Nietzsche that I knew!)

But you know how things stay with you until you’re done with them? You know how that works? You keep puzzling over something, turning it over in your mind until you figure out what’s bothering you, or why it is that you keep thinking about it? That’s how it was for me with, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” It just kept coming back to me in this really irritating way until I finally figured out what it was.

And here’s what I figured out — Nietzsche was off his head on this one! It’s one of the worst responses to suffering that I can think of! So don’t say it! Because it simply isn’t true – not true at all. What doesn’t kill us can twist us, bow us down, make us bitter, bone-weary, numb — and yes, can even make us wish for death rather than this pain…

Maybe Hemingway comes closer, in A Farewell to Arms: “The world breaks everyone,” he writes, “and then some become strong at the broken places.”

The world breaks everyone. Everyone. And then somehow, some become stronger at the break.

So why is that? Why only some? Why not all of us? Because it isn’t everyone — we’ve all seen that. We’ve seen people give in, give up, stay stuck, turn to the wrong things for comfort, take it out on others, turn bitter, blame the world, turn vengeful. Oh, we’ve seen it. Of course, when that happens it doesn’t mean that’s the end of the story – we could never say that – there’s always hope. But how do some of us seem able to recover from the truly horrible things that can occur in life? Is it our upbringing? Our inherited traits? Our intelligence, emotional or otherwise? Is it, in other words, beyond our control? We can’t control our family, the environment we grow up in, our gene pool, whether we are dark-skinned or light, whether we are born into poverty or comfort — we can’t control the hand that we are dealt.

But, we can control our everyday choices and responses within this life we are given. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that our recovery from life’s inevitable wounds — and they are inevitable, nobody gets out of this life without experiencing pain, sorrow, suffering – recovery depends, at least in part, on what we let in at the broken places.

When we are broken open by life’s circumstances we are very vulnerable. Pain is more painful; worries are more worrying; and even joy can seem almost too much to contain. Even joy can break us open! Think of those moments of intense happiness when laughter gave way to tears, when your soul just almost couldn’t contain the feelings. And whether we are broken open by grief, by joy, by pain or sorrow, or by a sense of overwhelming gratitude for all we’ve received in this life — we are vulnerable in that state.

And so what we let in through the cracks becomes very important.

If, when we are in pain, we let in thoughts destined to make the wound fester, like sand or grit — thoughts that say, for example, that we deserve the pain we are in, or that the world is out to get us, or that God is punishing us, or that we have a right to exact revenge on those causing our pain, or any number of soul-poisoning thoughts — these thoughts aren’t going to help us become stronger at the break. Just the opposite.

But if, when we are in pain, we seek solace and support from trusted sources, if we let others care for us, if we are able to still turn toward those things which nurture our soul, then it is as though we are putting healing balm at the breaking point, as though we are placing a spiritual bandage over our heart, to help it heal, and to protect it while it does.  And I’ll talk more about protection in another article.

So it is when we are at our most vulnerable — that it becomes more important than ever, to let in only love at the cracks, at the broken places — only solace, only life and light-giving elements. It is when we are at our most vulnerable that it becomes even more important to protect ourselves from thoughts, actions, or words that sabotage our healing — whether they come from us, or from those around us!

How many of us have had well-meaning acquaintances say exactly the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time! “It’s for the best.” Really? “I know just how you feel.” No you don’t! “You’ll feel better tomorrow.” How can anyone possibly know that? These are not the things to say when someone is suffering. And certainly not, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!”

Some of you may be familiar with William Sloane Coffin, a brilliant American clergyman of the last century. He lost his 24-year-old son, Alex, in a car accident, and 10 days later delivered the eulogy — one of his most powerful, and most-often quoted messages. This is from “Eulogy for Alex:”

“The one thing that should never be said when someone dies (and I would add – or is suffering) – is “It is the will of God.” Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”

And you know — don’t you? — that there are some days when you are strong enough to bear life’s hurts, and other days when they bring you to your knees! So at those times, give yourself permission to take extra measures to protect and tenderly care for yourself.

This is part of the spiritual path: learning to turn ever more toward the ultimate source, even at our moments of deepest trial, and even at our moments of deepest gladness.

As you think about this, ask yourself where in your life do you need to put a guard over the cracks? Where can you turn for safety and caring? How can you ensure that you do your utmost to become stronger at the break?

If you’d like some suggestions … give me a call


Go Back to Articles Page

The mind of the day draws no attention to it;
It dwells within the silence with elegance
To create a space for all our words
Drawing us to listen inward and outward

John O'Donohue, from The Inner History of a Day