Of all the aphorisms of Nietzsche, ‘That which does not kill me makes me stronger’, has without doubt become the most quoted nowadays. But if ‘that which does not kill us’ means a traumatic impact on the body or the mind, it makes no sense. To fully appreciate the absurdity of this aphorism, we need only ask ourselves if abusive parents or some form of mutilation make us stronger.
Trauma makes us weaker
No, trauma does not make us stronger: in fact, it forces us to adopt strategies of compensation which let us survive in the short term, but in the long term prove to be pathological. If my leg hurts, I limp in order to compensate, but little by little limping has a negative effect on my body. To a certain extent, this compensation can give the appearance of strength: the blinded can develop his hearing, the child learns to toughen himself by cutting himself off from his feelings, but these are only overcompensations, in the latter case particularly pathological.
And this is how our society works
None the less, Nietzsche’s aphorism reflects one of the bases of our society. Society traumatizes individuals from childhood up, especially at school, so that they will conform to the needs of our civilization. School teaches us to feel powerless before those who are in authority. We learn behaviors which comfort us and which society can use, even consuming to the point of obsession, or else becoming workaholics. This is how civilization wants us.
Let us keep in mind that our society needs a large number of individuals who will stay seated for long hours facing an activity which may be more or less stressful. It doesn’t matter what this provokes, in response to the pull of gravity: a lumbar hyperextension leading to lordosis or kyphosis, a swaying gait, the pelvis displaced forward or backward, thoracic compression, scoliosis, collapse of the nape of the neck, various hypotonicities of the muscles to which other muscles respond with pain ... Society needs people seated. It does not matter that their locomotion is ruined. It does not matter that their nervous and endocrine systems suffer ...
And the worst is, that we learn to like these compensations. Working on recovering a human stature proves painful. We prefer to collapse in an armchair, even if it means backache, rather than stand up straight. At the end of the day we are grateful to society for letting us undergo this violence, as long as we have a situation, a salary, a roof over our heads. A strong simile drawn from history may help us understand this ‘educative’ social mechanism.
Less than two centuries ago in southern Italy, certain boys were sent by their parents to the barber to be castrated. Those who survived the operation were then entrusted to the Church or to the Opera, to make them singers. And the castrati who had talent and a good ear could make a fine career, as the ablation of the testicles enabled the voice to reach an abnormal tessitura for the pleasure of the admirers of lyric opera. They were deprived of their manhood, but some managed to raise themselves to heights of glory. Some compensation.
The paths to healing
Of course, we no longer have castrati among us. We have human beings who work long hours before a screen, but who suffer from various overcompensations of posture and locomotion. Not to mention overweight linked in part to stress and to lack of mobility. But to compensate for this we nourish the fitness industry. Gyms spring up all over at a frantic pace. And the customers flock to them if only to feel relieved of their stress. Is getting cooped up in halls full of machines a solution, or aren’t our dysfunctions simply reinforced? If we do not ask ourselves what they mean, or what other paths to healing might exist, we shall be in the same situation. The way to strength begins by turning our backs on these dysfunctions, which have been rooted in the depths of our body and nervous system by civilization. More anon ...
© Matthieu Smyth
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