“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” You’ve heard people say it before. You’ve probably said it yourself. Hell, Kelly Clarkson sings so convincingly about it, I almost believe her. But I was thinking about it today, and it’s not true. In fact, it’s almost the opposite. The saying ought to be, “What doesn’t kill you makes you damaged.” Because anything painful enough to hurt that badly usually leaves a mark on your soul that never really goes away. And even if you can cling to the fact that the bad thing that happened to you did not, in fact, “kill you,” you are still walking around with a little hole in your heart that wasn’t there before, like a ticking time bomb, waiting for that hole to reopen or get bigger or eventually strain to the point that it blows a gash in your aorta that makes you tumble down a staircase twenty years later.

That bad thing didn’t make you stronger. It made you damaged. It made you someone who winces at film scenes reminiscent of the bad thing that happened to you. Sure, it might be happening to Sandra Bullock or Leonardo DiCaprio on screen, but all you see is you, and you brush back a tear from the side of your face and try not to let your date see you crying. Every song on the radio becomes a depressing tale in minor chords, and every one of those sad songs is about you, to the point where you become certain that some twisted lyricist from The Fray or whatnot has placed a hidden webcam in your living room – or possibly Morrissey has a GPS tracker on your car. The more damaged you’ve become the more sure you are that the world is conspiring against you. Of course that asshole at the gas station cut you off. Of course that inconsiderate bastard at the store took the parking space you wanted. You have been marked by the universe. Some cosmic force has singled you out to have no luck. Or maybe it turns you into someone who doesn’t believe in happy endings, so you become a self-fulfilling prophecy of romantic break-ups, troubled family relations, lost opportunities, dead-end jobs, pets that run away. You drift through life, carrying that little hole around, damaged from the bad thing that happened to you, and tell the guy at the liquor store, selling you your weekly bottle of Jack Daniels, “hey, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” and he agrees with you and goes back to his endless stream of cigarettes and lottery tickets.

Damaged people are everywhere because everyone gets damaged. Even the silver spoon who got through school with the best girl, the best friends, the best sports team, the easiest life, who never got bullied and somehow never managed to bully anyone else. Even that guy has something. Maybe he didn’t get into the school he had his heart set on. Or maybe his best girl left for the West Coast with her family and never came back. Maybe his mom is battling cancer. Maybe Uncle Bob molested him when he was seven. Everyone’s got something. Everyone has at least one small hole in his heart. If all you have is a tiny pinprick in yours, then good for you. I mean it. You’ve either had remarkable luck or managed a tremendous accomplishment. If you’ve been able to walk outside every day of your life, thrust your fragile body into the seething hive that is humanity and make it back to your safe, benign home, relatively unscathed, year after year after year, I may just have to follow you around as a disciple and start worshipping the ground you walk on as sacred. You are indeed an anomaly.  But if you’re like the rest of us, somewhere along the line someone treated you badly. Someone broke your heart, or maybe your nose, or maybe your spirit. Someone took your dignity, your virginity, your innocence. Someone did something that made you feel like jumping off a bridge or a stage or the edge of a chasm of despair and falling into a bottle of something addictive, or a bevy of unfit partners, or a dark, empty room or a grave. And it either kills you or it doesn’t. And maybe you can look in the mirror and proudly see the person who made it, the person who didn’t die. I do it myself sometimes. And yes, it’s all well and good that something terrible happened and we managed to crawl out the other side of it like a cockroach, able to survive a hydrogen bomb. But there’s a big difference between surviving and enjoying. Between mere existence and supreme contentment, perhaps even happiness – or joy.

Damaged people create more damaged people. And it’s true. Look around you. You know without social statisticians and psychological research methodology that it is indeed true. You hear the neighbors fighting every night, see the kid with the dirty clothes and the empty eyes, have the girlfriend who sleeps with every jackass in town, know a guy who can’t go out for a drink without the night ending in a brawl, a grudge or a bail hearing. No one was born that way. Someone created them. Or a lot of someones. And sure, at some point we become complicit in the creation, adding new layers of paint to that majestic atrocity ourselves. But it takes a village. So how do we heal that hole in our heart, erase the damage, become people not mollified by our mere survival but delighted by our ability to live and thrive? Sorry, guys. We don’t. As long as there have been people, there have been terrible things to do to other people. The only way to stop the cycle is to stop doing terrible things. And as long as people have known this, someone has been around to say “love thy neighbor,” or “practice peace,” or “do unto others,” and it’s all really well-intentioned and extraordinarily reasonable and pretty much agreed upon by virtually everyone. So, remind me – how well has that been working for us lately? Oh, right. Well, at least we’re all in this together.

So, my only advice would be, the next time you look in the mirror – every time you look in the mirror, in fact – try to see not only your face, but that inevitable hole in your heart, and be a little bit kinder to yourself. Then, go out into the world and see not just the faces of those around you but the punctured hearts they carry within their shirts and be a little kinder to them, as well. And when that asshole cuts you off at the gas station or that inconsiderate bastard takes your parking space, see not just a face you feel anger toward, but a heart like a pincushion bursting with holes, and if you can’t feel forgiveness or patience, maybe at least try pity. As for the rest, the ones whose damage has taken them to extremes, that’s a conundrum for another day and another page, but keep in mind, life does not imprint us, other people do. And no, it does not make us stronger. It makes us weaker, like a twisted ankle that constantly twists again at the damaged point or a wound that keeps reopening until it forms a scar that aches for life. But at least it didn’t kill us. And that’s something. Right, Kelly Clarkson?

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