Does hardship actually make a person stronger?
Hardship can weaken and break a person. The question is what enables some people to become stronger through hardship instead. Often, even in such cases, scars and injuries remain. But these can either drag us down or propel us forward. I would say this: never underestimate the power of simply putting your feet forward and persevering. When you don’t have anything left, you can often robotically do what you know you should do. Your thoughts and feelings about it don’t matter at that point: your actions do. Put aside these harmful and moronic notions about authenticity (“but doing X would be ‘fake’ because I don’t feel like it”). Heroic virtue is often just putting one foot in front of the other. Because sometimes that is extremely difficult and takes all one’s effort.
"People are not born holy. Holiness is forged." People are not born virtuous. Virtue is forged. “Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” One proceeds towards virtue as well as knowledge by means of “little streams”—manners, politeness, cleanliness, controlling sleep, working conscientiously, doing what is needed for your family members, etc. These "little streams" are to some degree artificially constructed canals. It is difficult for us to concede their necessity today, just as it is difficult to explain the necessity of knowing geometry today in order to gain safe and fulfilling passage into the “great ocean of knowledge.” But this is due to our blind ignorance. And, yes, to some extent the “little things” are in themselves arbitrary, or at least they seem so. In our culture they are easily dismissed and not understood to be connected to the big stuff that makes you stronger.
But when you undergo real and crushing hardship, and all else is taken away, these little things are often all that is left, and how you respond is the difference between conquering and becoming stronger or “letting go” and fading into harmful habits and the road to oblivion. These little things often become the central struggle of your days in the midst of hardship—and the potential path to strength and salvation.
Hurt is squirrelly. People often experience it either as a blunt object or a mystical maze, something that announces and imposes itself or something that pulls you in and leaves you to suffer. An invader or an environment. Either way, such experiences themselves don’t send clear signals about whether extended pain makes you stronger, much less better.
The experience of suffering, in other words, is insufficient to impart understanding as to the works of suffering. This is a little different from saying as is often said that suffering itself is meaningless. I’m saying suffering itself is mute. Maybe that which does not destroy me makes me stronger. Maybe not. Why should suffering care? How COULD it? To me, Nietzsche’s famous dictum is certainly not written as the moral precept or motivational factoid it’s often assumed to be but as the kind of promise to oneself about oneself that probably only someone who has become intimate with death through sickness or war can really understand.
A somewhat similar dictum is familiar from Galatians 2:20: Not I, but Christ in me.” I am crucified, yet I live! Or rather, not I, but... The difference is that this promise to oneself is also a promise to God, a promise to remember that life is a trial which we may either pass or fail. Few seem to remember that, contrary to popular Christian opinion, God often throws things at you that He knows you CAN’T handle. Things that don’t make stronger in any sense we can understand but break and wound and scar. Unbearable things hit us all the time.
Theologically, the Christian response to this reality is that not us but Christ in us is strengthened by our spiritual crucifixion. Christ does not (just) hang out with you and console you as your best friend or even as your personal savior from (per the Christmas carol) Satan’s power; Christ shelters you, and all inherently errant people we are, from GOD’s power. Without Christ, the relationship between Man and God is ultimately broken, incomplete, disharmonious. A stunning doctrine! But one that speaks, as others do not, where suffering sits imperiously or idiotically mute.
It all depends on how one deals with the hardship, of course. If you have the ability to stare your challenges square in the face and work through them, you will emerge—even if you suffer temporary defeat—stronger for it. But here I am referring to pains encountered in one's average professional career or relationship history or spiritual journey. This, of course, is different from physical hardship, which I think is beneficial we each experience. If you live through the Great Depression, you learn to do without insane excess. If you were raised in an environment where work around the home or farm or shop was necessary from a young age, then you learn the value of hard work. But most of us don't grow up like this. And so, we collectively become spiritually and physically enervated, while at the same time enjoying freedom from toil and penury.
I have always found heartbreaking these lines from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon:
Grief, the reminder of pain, drips onto the heart
in sleep: wisdom comes
even to those who don’t want it.
The chorus is reflecting on Agamemnon’s decision to slaughter his own child so Artemis would let him sail for Troy. He must balance the demands of statecraft against the most hideous personal atrocity imaginable; those who would judge his choice too quickly lack the wisdom which must only, I suppose, come from standing in his place.
But can wisdom of that kind really be said to make one stronger? I would hardly dare to think so, though it would be a nice thing to believe. The things the world takes from us are real losses; we cannot in the end cheat ourselves into imagining we will always remain powerful or in control.
I have seen friends wasted terribly away by disease; not all of them were brave or defiant in the face of it. And knowing how it ravaged them—how it stole every good and sweet thing away one by one—I would have to be callous indeed to fault them for buckling.
Still, for all but the most inveterate scoundrels, great suffering does seem to bring a measure of insight and understanding. Perhaps it must be so: perhaps the suffering itself is the knowledge, and nothing else can quite bring it. May we all be lucky enough to remain fools in this arena! But, as C.S. Lewis notes in The Problem of Pain, until we have been through real loss or real anguish, we tend merely to imagine that we have understood their power and significance. They are the kind of things we must unfortunately feel the quality of before we can say we “know” them, and since pain is one of life’s central facts I suppose one must know it in this sense to be wise.
So it is that, as Lewis also writes in that book (quoting Keats), “If the world is indeed a 'vale of soul making' it seems on the whole to be doing its work.” We case to reason purely in the abstract—always a recipe for buffoonery—when we cannot deny the brute facts of reality, and we are only forced to stop denying them when they are what we feel more deeply than anything else. I would argue my way out of this one if I could—would gladly make the case against suffering’s necessity for you on your behalf, too—but it is beyond my power.