The aphorism, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” has come at me four times, from four directions, this week. I heard someone say it, then I read it in a novel, then I saw a meme joking about it on Facebook, then I had a personal experience and it was the first phrase that popped into my head…
Usually, when an idea like this hits me from a bunch of different angles, I think, “Wow! The Universe is trying to affirm something.” This time, though, it’s occurring for me more like — hm… I don’t know if that’s totally true. I don’t think this is some brilliant Cosmic Advice. In fact, it sounds more like a cliché. And maybe my noticing it means that I have an opportunity to examine and perhaps disentangle myself from a way of being in the world that doesn’t serve me so well anymore.
Because, sure, I get the concept: difficulties and obstacles can help us to develop emotional fortitude, psychological resilience, and coping skills that prepare us for future challenges. As we identify ourselves as victorious survivors, as ones who have overcome trials and tribulation, this may inspire in us greater confidence and strength. And it can be reassuring, when we’re in the midst of hardship, to look forward hopefully claiming that it’s all somehow for our betterment, our fortification, our self-improvement.
But this approach has some serious limits in its usefulness and applicability. If we’re not mindful, it can tip into a habitually combative, antagonistic relationship with the world.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger! Booyah!
Um… ew. To me, when I really think about it, this sounds downright aggressive. I mean, I value strength, I like to think of myself as getting stronger every day. But if my motto involves idealizing the fact that life hasn’t killed me yet, then on some level I might be inclined to start looking (unconsciously, mostly) for situations that almost kill me because I believe that this is the way to get strong, to grow, to succeed.
I’m really uncomfortable with how familiar it sounds. I think I do this much more than I realize — romanticizing struggle, dramatizing conflict, turning my work week and social calendar and household responsibilities all into a marathon obstacle course that leaves me half-dead every day so I can go to bed feeling like I accomplished something. Feeling stronger. Feeling like I “won.” I beat life at its own game. Again, ew.
There’s something about the habit of constantly flexing our muscles, looking in the mirror at how buff we’re becoming, that can make it harder for us to let life flex us. And truly, flexibility is just as essential to our creativity and power as is any balls-to-the-wall force.
“Flex” is one of those words that seems to contain opposite meanings. We flex our muscles by contracting them — we tighten our biceps to display our magnificent “guns.” But flex also means to open, to stretch, to release. The Latin root of the word means to bend or turn. Flexibility in our joints and muscles involves relaxing them and allowing them to be pliant and loose. A flex schedule is a variable one, it moves with greater freedom. To be flexible in most contexts is to go with the flow rather than bullying our way against it.
We do a lot of strength-building in life, resistance-training and weight-lifting that pumps us up psychologically, spiritually, emotionally, and physically. And it can be empowering to flex our muscles and show the world what we’ve got. But force without flexibility is brutal. And, of course, in the end, it’s really not very strong. Force without flexibility eventually meets its match and gets broken.
It seems pretty clear to me that what is always being called for is a way of flexing our glorious selves that includes both might and litheness, willfulness and willingness, power and give.
What doesn’t kill us is most things, right? The vast majority of situations, ideas, people, and conditions don’t kill us. What doesn’t kill is us 99.9999% of Life. And yeah, sometimes it does show up as a strength challenge, calling forth our resilience, our willpower, our vigor and potency and fierce creative authority.
Sometimes, though — maybe most of the time, if we let it — Life can an invitation to dance, to be graceful, to partner with it and perhaps even allow it to lead, to freely flow in the more subtle strength of our deep flexibility.
I can’t wait to be with you, friends. XO, Drew
© 2018 Drew Groves