by Shulamith Firestone
I love Kelly Clarkson as much as the next girl— “Since U Been Gone” is surely one of the greatest breakup anthems of all time—but lately I’ve been pondering the lyrics to “What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger).”
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is a comforting notion. Who doesn’t want to believe in the silver lining theory of emotional devastation? If everything bad that happens to us has a hidden upside, then nothing is as terrible as it seems. Or at least it won’t seem so terrible when you look back on it years later.
It seems to me that more often than not, what doesn’t kill you alters you permanently, and usually not for the better. Breaking up with my first serious boyfriend didn’t kill me, but it did make me cynical about love. My friends and family insisted for years that this cynicism was a temporary condition from which I would exit upon meeting someone new.
Well, I met someone new. He’s kind and generous and good to me. He loves me. I love him. My cynicism remains. How could it not? I was crazy about my ex; idolatrous. He eventually said he loved me, but he kept me at arm’s length for the three and a half years we were together. He said he hoped to marry me, then that he couldn’t live with me, and finally that he’d made a mistake. I was devastated, then miserable, then angry, then okay. Cutting off all contact with him was the best decision I ever made. He was a terrible boyfriend and I don’t miss being his girlfriend, but I do miss him: his humor, his intelligence, his quirkiness, his face.
As almost everyone does, I survived the end of my first great love. But it didn’t make me stronger in any way that I can see. If anything, it crippled me. For years, I was haunted; to this day, I am haunted. I’ve compared each subsequent lover to him, and most often found them wanting. I’ve sabotaged promising new relationships by pining for him. I’ve been angry with men who reminded me of him, and resentful of those who didn’t.
The primary lesson I drew from the experience was that most mundane forms of human suffering (the end of romantic love, the death of an elderly parent) are survivable. These things must be survivable, because they happen to everybody, and, if we couldn’t survive them, we’d be extinct. But I still believe they are likelier to cause weakness than strength, and to leave you permanently cynical about life. If you believe that giving someone up will annihilate you, and it doesn’t, what does that say about your capacity to feel? If the end of love is survivable, what does that say about love?