What Doesn’t Kill You Does Not Make You Stronger

Seriously, what is the deal in popular music with this worn-out and woefully inaccurate cliché?

The Kelly Clarkson hit with the phrase in its title. Kanye West’s otherwise entertaining Stronger. Will.I.Am’s That Power. Plus a host of other songs by artists such as Theory of a Deadman, Pain, Dappy, Saving Jane, Shontelle, KISS, Clay Aiken, Solarward, Kataklysm, Seventh Key, Heltah Skeltah, and Carpathian, among others.

First of all, shame on all of you for not coming up with more original song lyrics. It seems to me as if a musician would at least want to use a different cliché from the one everyone else is using. But maybe I’m being too harsh here. There aren’t many words that rhyme with “longer,” after all. It’s not like “Every cloud has a silver lining,” which has a multitude of rhyming possibilities. Pining, dining, whining, signing… imagine the poetry that might be constructed around “mining!”

What really irritates me about this overused phrase is not the words themselves, but the concept behind them. It’s true that most of the time, if you survive a viral illness, you’ll develop immunity to the germ that caused it and will arguably be “stronger” because of that. But certainly in the realm of physical injury, anyone who has ever sprained a knee or slipped a disc knows how vulnerable that spot becomes after you’ve hurt it once. Yet consider this line from The Fighter by Gym Class Heroes (which is a band I generally like, by the way):

“Every time you fall it’s only making your chin strong.”

Now that can’t be true, can it? I would think that smacking your chin repeatedly would cause little hairline fractures to form along the jawline, setting you up for a break later on. Maybe what they mean is that repeated blows to the face deaden the nerves, gradually causing you to feel less pain. That would certainly make sense; otherwise how would boxers stand the abuse?

And maybe I’m being too literal, interpreting this in the physical sense. I suppose one could argue that suffering a mental trauma might make a person less vulnerable to emotional dysfunction in future. But I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a psychiatrist who would agree with that. Don’t we more often hear of repeated crises referred to as “the straw that broke that camel’s back,” to employ another well-worn platitude? And what about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? Tell front-line soldiers that they’re stronger for not being killed in action and see where that gets you.

No, the problem is that people want to believe that they’re getting something out of their suffering; that something positive results from pain. And maybe sometimes it does. Suffering can change a person for the better. There’s value in learning to endure pain. But for the most part it’s a trick; a deception practiced upon one’s own mind to make hardship easier to bear.

The irony is – perhaps it does. Maybe the delusion itself is what prompts us to “dust ourselves off” and “get back on the horse.” Maybe that’s what makes us “look for the silver lining” even when “the chips are down.” Maybe that’s how, when our world is at its darkest, we are able to force ourselves to wait patiently for the dawn.

What doesn’t kill you doesn’t make you stronger. But maybe believing it does.    

2 thoughts on “What Doesn’t Kill You Does Not Make You Stronger

  1. Lori Schafer

    Ha! Yes, that song drives me crazy! Especially the way he equates her unwillingness to die for him as a sign that she's somehow “evil.” (“Tell the Devil I said hey when you get back from where you're from.”)

    I like your advice to your daughters. It's lyrics like these that really ought to come with a warning label!


  2. Julie Valerie

    Great article and I totally agree. Some lyrics these days leaving me with floating question marks above my head. Am I getting old? Or are some lyrics downright creepy?

    Case in point: Bruno Mars – Catch a Grenade for You.

    He runs through a list of crazy violent ways in which he wants to die to show his love (hit by a train, catching a freaking GRENADE, etc.)

    “…I would go through all this pain,
    Take a bullet straight through my brain,
    Yes, I would die for ya baby;
    But you won't do the same…”

    So I'm thinking, WHAT?! He's stupid enough to die in bizarre ways to prove his love – but is pissed that I'm NOT that stupid?


    I told my daughters if any guy ever plays this song, references this song, quotes lyrics of this song to them – they should RUN.




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