What Doesn't Kill Me Makes Me...
Well, what does it make me?
We all know the phrase, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It’s a perennial favorite in football weight rooms, and even though it originates with Friedrich Nietzsche, most people are probably more familiar with the Kanye song. It’s a phrase for overcomers.
But is it true? There’s an alternative spin on that quote that may be a more accurate representation of how many people really feel: What doesn’t kill me makes me weaker. As much as I would like to believe in the intrepid, courageous human spirit, most of what I see is a discouraging lack of desire to meaningfully engage in dialogue, take on challenges, or risk being wrong. If you’re anything like me, the moments you’ve given up on changing anyone’s mind convince you that the second version of this maxim might be truer.
A few weeks ago, a tweet from Ben Sasse caught my attention, “We’d be a lot healthier if everyone read and debated this.” The book he was referring to is The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. This week, Russell Moore also had Haidt on his podcast. Their conversation sealed the deal for me.
The book has a pretty simple premise. Three untruths are destroying our culture. The untruth of fragility: what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker. This is the underlying belief for safe spaces, PC culture, and expansive hate speech legislation. The untruth of emotional reasoning: always trust your feelings. Emotion and empathy are key in our world. In an environment where truth is relative, feelings reign. The untruth of us versus them: life is a battle between good people and bad people. Just open twitter.
One of the profound observations in the book is that parents, teachers, and administrators have been teaching children to cope with the world by engaging “in the mental habits commonly seen in people who suffer from anxiety and depression.” The belief that opposition of any kind might actually make us weaker is driving us to react to conflict in ways that perpetuate anxiety. It’s no wonder anxiety and depression are at an all-time high.
It’s also no wonder college campuses are leading the charge. Take a group of kids who believe their feelings determine reality, teach them that encountering opposing viewpoints can cause them irreparable psychological and emotional damage, add copious amounts of alcohol and a potent dose of cultural Marxism and you’ve got campus activism. I’m not sure the students deserve all the blame.
It’s easy to sit around and lament the state of the world. But if we stop there we’re perpetuating the narrative we claim to resent. It’s possible that you can fall prey to the myth of fragility by decrying everyone else’s fragility. The solution is to get out and do something about it. Lukianoff and Haidt argue that we are actually antifragile: we “require stressors and challenges in order to learn, adapt, and grow.” The belief that we are fragile and must avoid harmful situations at all costs actually compromises our safety rather than securing it.
As Christians, this is something we wholeheartedly agree with, and then some. We don’t just expect to go through difficulties in this world. We also expect to suffer, go through persecution, and fall short of perfection this side of eternity. More specifically, we should expect to grapple with difficult people, events, and ideas with the knowledge that our struggles actually produce fruit in the end. Christians should be the strongest advocates antifragility.
One of the problems in American Christianity is we’ve identified the wrong struggles. I’m not talking here about social issues. We’ve become convinced that our most significant struggles come from outside forces. Religious freedom is an important issue in our country, and it will continue to be at the center of debate for the foreseeable future, but the Bible is clear that some of our greatest struggles will come from the inside, from our own flesh. Your sin is more fundamental than your stance on social issues. But it’s also a lot less glamorous to do the hard work of repenting, confessing, trusting, and making incremental progress by the power of the Spirit than it is to virtue signal about your pet issue.
The bright spot is Christians offer the world an alien hope. Outside of Christ, there is no guarantee that your suffering will even mean anything. It’s almost unbearable to watch people settle for making meaning out of their pain when there’s nothing more beneath the surface than the temporary triumph of the human spirit. The bitter truth is there is no meaning in meaning-making if there is no transcendence. Thank God that we were made to transcend our suffering.
Our churches desperately need a group of Christians who have fought and suffered, not just over political or social causes, but against their own sin. Christians who have disciplined themselves - beaten their bodies into submission to use Paul’s words or gauged out their eyes to use those of Jesus - are the only hope for a courageous prophetic witness in the next generation of the church.
We are antifragile. We were made to take on challenges, struggles, and persecution. The comfort in Christ is that we are more than conquerors! To conquer you have to hit a challenge head-on. What doesn’t kill us does make us stronger - but that strength might look like patience, power through weakness, and self-control. Our strength comes from our victorious Savior who did not avoid conflict but triumphed over it. In him, we also triumph.
Over the next few Fridays, I will be blogging through the themes of The Coddling of the American Mind. Read the book along with me or follow the series to think through the issues!
Cole Feix is the founder of So We Speak and a regular writer. Follow him on Twitter, @cfeix7.
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