There is a swirl of sayings that we use to help us through the tough patches of life. My least favorite is the quintessential queen of exhortations: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” We have the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche to thank for that.
He was all into self-realization and power to combat the weak. His writings became part of the doctrine of the Nazis to build their super race. As reported by one reviewer in Nietzsche's book "Der Antichrist," he laments that the Germans had not created their own god in over 2,000 years.
As if that's not bad enough, our own lovely Kelly Clarkson belts out the words velcroed to music. Now we will never get it out of our heads.
My dislikes come because it is not true. At least, it is not so when you deal with sick and dying kids. While vaccines boost immunity, making the body, in the words of Nietzsche, “stronger,” there are other viruses and bacteria that invade and destroy.
A bigger complaint is that the apparent abandonment of all others in times of crisis is supposed to be good for you. Because I know the world of feeling alone, the idea angers me. Whatever happened to “one for all and all for one,” the swimming buddy system or holding hands when crossing the street?
Then along came Malcolm Gladwell and his insightful book “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.” In it, he tells about countless victories of the little guy against all obstacles, foreign or domestic. It is a kinder, gentler Nietzsche. One of his focuses is on the reaction of the Brits during the London Blitz; they like to say it was the old stiff upper lip, tut tut and jolly ho.
But he quotes from the book "The Structure of Morale," by Canadian psychiatrist J.T. MacCurdy:
“We are also prone to be afraid of being afraid, and the conquering of fear produces exhilaration ... the contrast between the previous apprehension and the present relief and the feeling of security promotes a self-confidence that is the very father and mother of courage.”
Finally, I turn to the expert on such trials and near-death experiences: Goldilocks. I can imagine her book: "The Goldilocks Method of Parenting: Not too hard, not too soft, but just right."
Some things that don’t kill us make us strong based upon our responses. Other times, nearly being killed only makes us weaker and sets us up for our personal coup de grâce.
As a parent, that is the tough part. What do we let our children experience, and when and for how long? You don’t tell a 2-year-old to “suck it up and go kill your dinner.” Neither do we pick them up every time they fall.
It is also a question about what we do as grown-ups. There is the side that cheers "self-reliance!" Then across the street you hear, “We are a community and we always help our neighbors.” Maybe they should meet in the middle of the road.
Goldilocks would say that both camps are right but that they are also at the risk of being either too hard or too soft. First, you build security and resilience in infancy. Then as they learn to walk, they will fall. It is at that moment that you let them get up on their own.
Security can be taught, but it is only when it is put to the test that it is learned. I am not pretending to know the right balance, but it is probably somewhere on the other side of Nietzsche and closer to the middle, or “just right” spot. Our placement of that spot is driven by our current location, derived from our earliest experiences.
Perhaps another word for security is courage.
“Courage is not something that you already have that makes you brave when the tough times start,” Gladwell says. “Courage is what you earn when you’ve been through the tough times and you discover they aren’t so tough after all.”
As parents, we will get it right some times and mess up big time at other times. We just have to remember Goldilocks: Not too hard, not too soft, but just right.
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician, fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing physician for 30 years and a hospitalist at Primary Children's Hospital and the University of Utah. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org