Does Suffering Really Make You Stronger?

You know the saying: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” It comes up a lot when life doesn’t go your way. The idea is that although your suffering is awful, there is a silver lining to it: it will make you wiser and more resilient in the face of misfortune. You’ll be like a phoenix rising from the ashes! Like a diamond that shines under the pressure of your circumstances! Like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, ready to spread its wings!

The phoenix from Greek mythology is typically associated with renewal and rebirth. Source: Wikipedia.

Now there is some truth to this notion. Suffering can make you braver, more self-aware, more loving and kind. Partly that is because pain can teach you that the universe does not revolve around you. It can show you that you had an unrealistic view of your abilities and your control over your life, and give you the opportunity to empathize with others who weather similar storms.

But the opposite can happen, too. Suffering can twist you up, turning you more bitter, cynical, selfish, and cruel than you were before. Your vices do not suddenly become easier to manage. You may actually indulge your vices more because you believe your circumstances are exceptional and you have the right. You may glimpse reservoirs of strength you never thought you had, but that doesn’t mean you will tap into them. You may see flaws in your character with renewed clarity, but you may choose to blame others for those flaws rather than taking responsibility for them.

The truth is that you have work to do and choices to make. Every tiny little decision, from resisting the urge to grumble under your breath, to showing up to important events you don’t feel like attending, to opening up to your close friends about what you’re really feeling, is part of the healing process; and I am afraid that it is neither simple or automatic. Suffering is an arduous, uphill climb. So often you want to drop to the ground and weep, shut out the world, stop doing what you know is right, and take a different path that seems easier but which in reality will make you a monster.

Suffering can make you stronger—if you let it. If you choose not to go it alone.