Sunday, March 05, 2006

That which doesn't kill you pretty much just doesn't kill you

“That which doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger.”

I’ve always kind of hated that line. I mean, it’s optimistic enough, sure. It’s a nice thing to think when bad things happen to you, which is why, I guess, some people tend to spout it at you when things go bad. But it makes what I think is ultimately a false supposition. And that is that self-improvement will always come as a result of adversity.

Personally, I think it’s perfectly conceivable to react to adversity with confusion: “What the fuck was that all about?” I think there are plenty of adverse moments that simply leave us broken, battered, and confused beyond belief.

Particularly if we’re seeking some kind of answer that might be contained in the adverse moment.

In literature, unlike in life, the lessons are often a whole lot easier to wrap your mind around, and perhaps it is because of literature that we’ve come to expect that lessons are contained in those sorts of adverse moments. In children’s books, the lessons are spelled out for you quite plainly. There is a very obvious “moral of the story” moment. Think of the story of the boy who cried wolf, as a really obvious example.

In adult literature, it can sometimes be a little more difficult to isolate the moral of the story. It sometimes requires some reading between the lines, because it would be considered kind of a literary sin to be too obvious with stuff like that. But quite often it’s there, and quite often you can find it without too much work. In Stephen King’s “The Shining” for example, the moral seems to pretty much be that it’s bad to be an alcoholic that tries to murder his family. Which, yeah, okay, solid moral.

But then you find an odd thing happens.

There are some examples of adult literature that don’t really seem have a moral at all. They’re kind of vacant, kind of empty, in that regard. They’re still entertaining reads, but because they are, in some way, about life – and because life quite often has no obvious moral to provide – there is no moral to be found between any of the lines. Except, maybe, that sometimes life is random and painful and meaningless.

Which, I guess, is kind of a moral in its own way.

When I was younger I used to prefer the first kind of story – the kind that had a moral of some kind, however hidden amongst the text it might be. Nowadays I tend to prefer the latter, because on some level I think it’s more honest. I tend to favour those sorts of films too (as in Magnolia – which has recently been upgraded to my second favourite film of all time) which, I think, is ultimately about the sometimes random, sometimes painful, and sometimes meaninglessness of life.

Of course, it’s equally about the sometimes random, sometimes wonderful, and sometimes jubilant sides of life as well. Because life is about both.

But one thing that life is not always about is meaning. Which is frustrating, because in spite of my fondness for ultimately meaningless art, I have a hard time applying that sort of approach to my life. When bad things happen, I ask myself, “What does this mean?” I ask myself, “What am I supposed to learn from this?” I find myself asking, “What the fuck was that about?”

And more often than not, there isn’t an answer.

And I want to tell myself that it’s because life is random and painful and meaningless, but I can’t because something inside of is convinced that if I look hard enough, if I try hard enough, I can yank a meaning out of it somehow. And then that random, painful, meaningless moment will have meaning, thus justifying my having experienced it.

Stupid. Futile. But a hard habit to break.

So the people who are inclined to say, “That which doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger,” I say, thanks, but not thanks. My subconscious is already convinced of this, regardless of how ridiculous it is. I don’t need any help thinking this way.

It’s a heck of a lot less optimistic, but I’d take, “That which doesn’t kill you only prolongs the inevitable,” any day. At least it’s a whole lot more honest.

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