The German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, once commented, “That which doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger.” What his words mean beyond a popular refrain, I’ll leave for Nietzsche’s devoted followers to sort out. Nonetheless, Nietzsche’s words ring a bell.
Trauma as strength has become our collective mantra. What if our mantra is a sign of weakness?
Yesterday a friend who, contra Nietzsche’s words, has her own story of suffering that hasn’t made her stronger, sent me an article from Psychology Today by Noam Shpancer. Shpancer‘s title represents an apt reversal of Nietzsche’s dictum: “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Weaker.”
Shpancer is best known as author of the novel, The Good Psychologist. Currently, he is a professor of psychology and a practicing clinician in Columbus, Ohio. Though living in America, Shpancer was born and raised on a kibbutz in Israel and served in the military there.
Shpancer debunks the notion that suffering makes you stronger. He believes this is particularly difficult for American culture to deal with because America is “born of trauma and imbued with a hopeful can-do ethos. Thus it wants to believe this idea because it’s self-affirming.” Shpancer refers to this as confirmation bias: “Once we have acquired a certain belief we tend to see, remember, and report mostly instances and events that support it. “
To back his conclusion, Shpancer cites a recent study comparing those who lived within 1.5 miles of the World Trade Center on September 11th and others who lived more than 200 miles away. The study shows those closer to Ground Zero have long-term neurological correlates of trauma exposure. Shpancer concludes that “when trauma and hardship do leave a mark, it is usually a bruise under the skin, not a notch on the belt.”
At the end of his article, Shpancer adds his own experience in the Israeli military to bolster his argument. On the surface, his reference seems innocuous. Digging below the surface other questions arise:
Years ago, during my mandatory army service in Israel, I took part in anti-terrorist training that involved working with the K9 unit. I asked the unit commander where he found those vicious attack dogs of his. Most people, he said, believe that wild street dogs make the best anti-terrorist dogs, having survived the, well, dog-eat-dog world of the mean streets. But the truth is just the opposite. Street dogs are useless for this–or any other–work because they are unpredictable and not trainable. Dogs that have been well cared for, loved, and protected all their lives–those are the best anti-terrorist dog candidates.
Shpancer doesn’t inquire as to how his military service in Israel addresses Nietzsche’s dictum. Did it make him stronger or weaker? Nor does Shpancer probe how the militarization of Jewish life in Israel and elsewhere has affected the Jewish outlook on the world.
Did the anti-terrorist training Shpancer was involved in include studying where terrorism comes from and why? In defending Israel’s citizens against terror, did he learn how soldiers like him terrorize Palestinians? Was part of Shpancer’s training a history lesson in the formation and expansion of Israel and the trauma that continues to be inflicted on Palestinians?
Perhaps Shpancer honed his views on trauma and its effects on strength and weakness in the occupied territories or in the Israeli invasions of Lebanon and Gaza. In his military service, did he personally inflict trauma on others or experience trauma himself?
These details would be important background for Shpancer’s readers to know. Then we would glimpse the story behind the story. Because if Shpancer’s judgment factors in the radical shift in Jewish history from powerlessness to power that Israel represents and he has lived – coupled with the trauma Jews suffered and now inflict on others which he has also lived – then a new kind of Jewish weakness might be at hand.
Did Shpancer leave Israel because he couldn’t resolve these issues within himself?
Two years ago, Shpancer wrote an op-ed for the Guardian reminiscing about his days growing up in a kibbutz. Curiously he omits its name and location. It turns out he was born and raised in Kibbutz Nachshon, outside of Jerusalem, which was established in 1950, two years after the 1948 war. The kibbutz was named after Operation Nachshon which opened up the Jerusalem road during the war. It was the first step of David Ben-Gurion’s infamous ethnic cleansing Operation Dalet.
In his article in the Guardian, as with Psychology Today, Shpancer omits the details of his Israeli past. As good psychologists, having Nietzsche but also Freud in mind, what should we think about Shpancer’s silence?