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What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger

Posted by Elyse Bruce on February 1, 2018

You have seen the memes and the posters on social media and heard people insist that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and while Idiomation can neither confirm nor deny the veracity of that statement, Idiomation has tracked down the expression’s history.

It means that hardship or difficult experiences are responsible for building a stronger character, usually with regards to morals and ethics, but also with regards to physical and mental health. It is meant to celebrate the resilience of individuals as well as the ability to cope and adapt where adversity — and in some cases, loss — occurs.

Last year on 15 February 2017, Science Daily shared a research paper that identified cellular recycling processes linked to the beneficial effects on individuals who underwent brief bodily stresses. The data collected by scientists at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute and the resulting paper published in Nature Communications was aptly titled, “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger.”

In the article “Hard Winter For The Guerrillas” written by Middle East correspondent David Hirst and published in the 2 January 1971 edition of the Guardian Weekly newspaper in London, a modified version of this expression found its way into the first paragraph in this way.

“The blow which does not kill you makes you stronger than before.” Three months have passed since Jordan’s “10-day war” between army and guerrillas, but it has not been long enough to provide convincing evidence that this Arabic saying, which Yaser Arafat cited after the fighting stopped, applies to the Palestinian resistance movement. In fact, most of the evidence points the other way.

Even in the 50s, this expression was one most people considered a nugget of wisdom. It even found its way into Dissent magazine from the Foundation for the Independent Study of Social Ideas in 1954 (the year this magazine was founded).

A girl tells of an aunt who taught her what Nietzsche taught some of us: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” The last pages bleed. But these kids could teach us all grace under pressure. They have grown up too fast for real. Many of the older ones have made it to college, and maybe they will thrive on what they have been through.

It appeared in Volume 76 of “Printers’ Ink” published on 6 July 1911. The article was written by Bert Moses and was a tribute to George P. Rowell ( 4 July 1838 – 28 August 1908) whose influence on advertising had far-reaching effects. He was thought of, according to the writer, as the pioneer of modern advertising.

He delighted as much to tell of his failures as of his successes. Once he took a whole page to advertise Ripans Tabules in a great New York daily at a cost of $800.

The only result he could trace was one mail order for 50 cents.

This was not a serious loss to him — it was experience — and he realized that all experience which does not kill you is good.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: George P. Rowell was the founder of the Advertising Agency of Geo. P. Rowell and Company which he founded on 5 March 1865. He founded Printers’ Ink in 1888 which was the first journal for advertisers established for the serious discussion of advertising as a business force. He was the founder of Rowell’s American Newspaper Directory in 1869 which focused on providing accurate information about the circulations of newspapers competing for advertising patronage.

However, nearly this exact phrase appears in the book by German philosopher and philologist Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (15 October 1844 – 25 August 1900) titled “Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer” written in 1888 and published in 1889. He was known for his critical texts on religion, morality, contemporary culture, philosophy and science, and in this book, he coined the expression albeit in German, not English.

That which does not kill you, makes you stronger.

Was uns nicht umbringt, macht uns stärker.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: The original title for his book was “A Psychologist’s Idleness” and was written between 26 August and 3 September 1888 when he was vacationing in the small village of Sils Maria which is one of two villages along with Segl Baselgia which make up Sils im Engadin, in the Swiss canton of the Grisons.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3:  Friedrich Nietzsche was born on King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia’s birthday and his parents decided to christen their newborn son Friedrich Wilhelm in honor of the King’s 49th birthday.

While it’s a fact that the expression was expressed in writing by Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche in 1888, the spirit of the expression is found in the King James version of the Bible where in Romans 5, verses 3 through 5, this is written.

And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope: And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.

And so, this expression is stamped on 1888 with a nod to the Christian Bible, and most likely a great many other historical cultures long before the Christian Bible was written, where strength of character was forged through emotional, mental, and physical endurance.

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