That Which Does Not Kill Me, Makes Me Stronger

“Cheerfulness in all situations, especially the bad ones”
-- ancient Stoic saying

The key turning point in my journey to wellness was not when I made the decision to postpone surgery and instead adopt natural, integrative interventions to treat my prostate cancer. Nor was it the moment when I began adopting the wholesale lifestyle changes which eventually saved my life and became the basis for the Health Warrior Way.

Instead, it was the decision to embrace this obstacle in my life – cancer – as an opportunity to find a different way to live.

As happens to many at the mention of the “C” word, my cancer diagnosis left me bereft, terrified. All of the sudden I was alone in a dark room. The only door, the one which led to my abundant old age, was abruptly slammed shut in my face. It wasn’t until my eyes adjusted to the darkness that I could make out the faint outlines of another door. This door eventually led to my salvation.
That which does not kill me, makes me stronger. Nietzsche, channeling the Stoics.

This is how I’ve come to consider my cancer diagnosis a blessing. It brought me face to face with my own mortality. It woke me up from a 50 year slumber, just in time to save me from sleepwalking through the rest of my life.

The irony is that, if not for my cancer diagnosis, I would likely have never made the changes that I made to protect my mind, body and spirit, to become as healthy as possible. It turned me into a Health Warrior. It led me to my purpose. It didn’t kill me; it made me stronger.

It was also at this time that I found my way back to Stoicism, a philosophical tradition I hadn’t studied since college 35 years earlier. I immersed myself in the teachings of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, Montaigne and Nietzsche and Viktor Frankl. Stoicism soon became my religion, my ideology for living. This willful, open-hearted leaning into life and accepting, with equanimity, what comes our way, really spoke to me. It is a strong yet soft way to navigate life.

Stoicism is really no more – nor less – than a set of practices – hacks, really – that can enable us to transcend the illusion that we are in control of anything in our lives other than our thoughts and how we respond to external events, to inoculate ourselves from unwelcome surprises and their often overwhelming emotional turmoil. “Cling tooth and nail to the following rule,” Seneca wrote, “not to give into adversity, not to trust prosperity, and always take full note of fortune’s habit of behaving just as she pleases.”

A mindset honed by Stoicism keeps us from getting over-attached to the transient spoils of life: comfort, perhaps even luxury; the love of people that are but fragile biological organisms; a strong, young, healthy body. Everything you know and love could be gone in an instant, yet we would somehow have to get up, dust ourselves off and get on with the rest of our lives.

Seneca’s philosophy was borne from experience. He was one of the wealthiest men in Rome, a senator and advisor to often-fickle emperors. He endured eight years of impoverished exile at the hands of Claudius, only to be welcomed back to Roman public life by Nero, who later commanded Seneca to take his own life for his alleged role in a failed plot to kill the young emperor.

Stoicism forces us to face the reality that anything could happen, at any time, and that the best approach given the uncertainty is to hope for the best but prepare for the worst. Strong back; soft, open heart.

Stoicism is not a religion. It doesn’t offer solace by promising glory in the next life. It doesn’t seek to diminish us by telling us that we deserve our suffering because we’re imperfect human beings. It’s focused on the here and now, on training (like a Warrior!) our minds to calmly consider in full any problem we encounter in order to reframe it, to find the opportunity hiding within the obstacle. As Ryan Holiday writes in his book, The Obstacle is the Way, What blocked the path is now a path. What once impeded action advances action.

Resistance is literally futile. What is meant to happen will eventually come to pass. Grasping for what is ebbing away as it inexorably slips through your fingers is the source of much human misery and suffering. Acceptance and non-attachment is the only balm for that soul-ache.

The Stoics talked a lot about ataraxia, which can be defined as balance or equanimity; this level-headedness in all situations – in commerce, in war, in politics, in love – was for them the path to eudaimonia, or flourishing in one’s life. They practiced ataraxia in times of calm so that they could control their emotions, expectations and perceptions in times of stress, and so they could give up, to the greatest extent possible, their desire to control other people and events. In Man’s Search for Meaning, his account of his time spent in a Nazi concentration camp during the holocaust, Viktor Frankl wrote that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Frankl endured unspeakable horrors yet somehow found a way to endure.

I have always aspired to greater equanimity, to be less reactive in stressful situations, more calm. This is why I began to practice Mindfulness shortly after my cancer diagnosis, and it’s why I sit or lie quietly for at least 20 minutes each day, breathing, listening to my body, watching the thoughts wash through my mind, observing myself by eliminating as many distractions as possible.

Stoicism and Buddhism share many principles. In his book Buddha’s Brain, Rick Hanson outlines the four stages of growth according to Buddhist doctrine:

  • first, there’s unconscious incompetence: we’re clueless, constantly pinballing from one stimulus to the next, reacting, without even knowing we’re reacting (people stuck in this stage of growth often say things like, “this is just how I am, I can’t help it.” This might sound familiar to you; I know it did to me)
  • then comes conscious incompetence: something’s wrong but we have no idea what; we feel ourselves reacting but we’re powerless to change it. This can be a frustrating place to be because you can no longer ignore your dysfunctional behavior; it’s staring you right in the face
  • next, conscious competence: we have reactions but they don’t rule us; we’re finally in control of our reactions
  • finally comes unconscious competence: there are no longer any reactions because we have decoupled the relationship between events and the thoughts that we create about those events

Finding some daylight between events and the thoughts I have about those events was, and continues to be, my challenge. Finding some space and time to choose how to respond, rather than respond automatically, continues to be my goal. If I can find a sliver of daylight (between stimulus and reaction) I can wedge my foot in there and try to pry it open a little bit more, to give myself more room to choose how I want to respond. This really is the last of the human freedoms; when all else fails, we can take comfort in knowing that we still have this option.

Ryan Holiday sums up the Stoic project succinctly: “You’ll have far better luck toughening yourself up than you ever will trying to take the teeth out of a world that is – at best – indifferent to your existence.”

The only defense against a world that is indifferent to our existence is to respond with indifference to the challenges the world presents us with and which we have no control over. This sounds hard, I know, and it’s even harder in practice than it sounds. But the other options – railing against the unfairness of it all, playing the victim and blaming others for our woes, reacting to every perceived slight or misfortune with bile and rancor – only diminish us and leave us ill-prepared to negotiate a life that will surely have its fair share of challenges and disappointments with dignity, grace and joy.