Like Nietzsche, what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger…and crazier

A few nights ago the air raid sirens blared in Jerusalem. We all moved quickly to our secure reinforced room, and waited the requisite ten minutes for the missiles to either land and explode, or to allow them to be blown up mid-air by the Iron Dome Defense System and for the shrapnel to fall to the ground. We talked a bit, made a few jokes, tweeted and facebooked the situation, and went back to bed.

The next morning my husband said he thought the kids seemed afraid. “You should talk to them,” he suggested. So with all the kids in the car on our way to a family outing, I bellowed to the back of the minivan (because that’s the only way everyone in a minivan can hear you) “Kids, were you scared last night when the sirens went off?”

“No!” they all shouted back. One daughter laughed. One of the little ones said she didn't even remember it because she was sleeping. I asked why they weren't scared. They said it’s kind of exciting. Another said, half-joking, that it’s good family bonding time.

Shouldn't kids be afraid of missiles? Shouldn't adults be afraid?

Nietzsche said in his book Ecce Homo:

“What does not kill him makes him stronger.”

That sounds reasonable. It does seem that the more we experience these types of attacks, the less afraid of them we are. But there’s another side to the coin too: after writing Ecce Homo, Nietzsche went completely insane. So which is it: the more we experience terrifying experiences, the stronger we are? Or are we just crazier?

Stone me once, I’m terrified. Stone me twice, I’m scared. Stone me thrice, I’ll shout at you. With my scary voice.

Since first moving to Israel, I’ve experienced multiple wars, my first being the Gulf War and so many others I can’t even remember their names. And of course there was the horrific second intifada where Hamas terrorists were blowing up Jerusalem buses, cafes, weddings, and anything they could think of, literally every day. An Israeli organization called Zaka would show up after every bombing and literally scrape flesh and blood off the ground and windows, and even climb trees to retrieve limbs, in order to give every victim as complete a traditional Jewish burial as possible. During that time, when my husband left for work in the morning, I knew there was a chance that God forbid he wouldn't come home. Many didn’t.

I experienced much of this violence from somewhat of a distance — the wars were on the northern or southern borders, and though I often heard the explosions as buses or cafes were ripped apart, I was thank God never within line of sight of the carnage. So the most direct type of attacks on my person that I've ever experienced is getting stoned. Not the good kind of getting stoned — I mean literal stoning, with stone-like objects.

The first time I got stoned in Jerusalem, a huge cement block came crashing through my windshield, landing right next to my head. I slammed on the accelerator and sped out of the area, with part of my shattered windshield flapping in the wind and sending glass shards flying on to the seat next to me. The second time, I also bolted out of there, but with more consciousness of what was going on. By the third time, enough was enough. I stopped my car, got out, and starting shouting at the Arabs who had stoned me. (They ran away. As my kids can testify, when I shout I can be pretty scary.)

That’s crazy person behavior. You don’t stop to face violent attackers, with no weapon other than your voice, however scary your kids think it is.

But I’m not the first person to experience less fear the more I experience something that makes me afraid. This phenomenon even has a name: it’s known as “remote misses,” and is described by Malcolm Gladwell in his book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. Gladwell quotes the work of a Canadian psychiatrist, J. T. MacCurdy, who seems to have been the only one to figure out why Londoners living under the continuous air raids of the German Blitz during the Second World War did not freak out en masse. MacCurdy explained that when a bomb falls, it divides the population into three groups:

  1. Those killed — they were affected the worst by the bombings, but they also can’t freak out. Because they’re dead.
  2. Near misses — those who were in close proximity to the destruction caused by a bombing and witnessed the carnage first-hand.
  3. Remote misses — people who “listen to the sirens, watch the enemy bombers overhead, and hear the thunder of the exploding bomb. But the bomb hits down the street…And for them, the consequences of a bombing attack are exactly the opposite of the near-miss group. They survived, and the second or third time that happens, the emotion associated with the attack… ‘is a feeling of excitement with a flavour of invulnerability.’”

Gladwell goes on to describe how Londoners who survived remote misses felt — they were exhilarated by the sense of having conquered the fear of fear itself.

Overcoming the fear of fear itself

I hate being afraid. When the adrenaline starts pumping, and my heart starts racing, I feel like I can’t think straight. Also, it can take a good few hours for my whole body to calm down from a frightening situation, something that makes it difficult to function, and is incredibly exhausting.

As such, I knew I had to learn to stabilize my reaction to fear, so I started to more consciously analyze my own reactions to frightening experiences. I observed that the greater the number of scary situations I experienced and survived, the less afraid I was the next time. For example, during the last air raid siren I was pleased to note that I had reached my goal of keeping my heart rate, which usually would accelerate to full-speed-ahead at the sound of the siren, steady. Go me. And another time, I exited a parking lot in Tel Aviv only to look up and realize that missiles had been shot down by Iron Dome right above my head. So I did what any “normal” Israeli who has been through dozens of attacks would do: I figured I was already out there, so I took a picture. See the two small clouds in the center of this post’s cover photo? That’s the aftermath of Iron Dome taking out two Hamas missiles. After taking the picture, I continued on to my meeting.

So basically, the more I was stoned, the more times I had to run to the secure room at the sound of sirens — the less scared I became.

Scud missiles? Check. Alive? Check!
Suicide bombers? Check. Alive? Check!
Boulders launched at my car? Check. Alive? Check!

No one wants to be bombed, or to live in a war zone. And in Israel, a country so small that there are literally only two degrees of separation between myself and the prime minister (no, he has no idea who I am), we all know people who have been injured or killed by terror or war. A boy in my brother’s class was shot by terrorists and killed in his school dorm; another boy had his stomach ripped open by a suicide bomber at a cafe; a wonderful Canadian social worker who worked with troubled youth was killed by a suicide bomber on a bus; a girl in my sister’s class was blown up at a pedestrian mall; one of my friend’s sisters was killed when a missile landed on her home; another friend’s brother was stabbed to death in Jerusalem. Etc. etc.

You can’t get far away from it. The threat is always real, and no matter how much your fear is reduced, it will never reach zero.

So if the violence is so close, yet we dismiss it and keep calm while carrying on, are we getting stronger? Or crazier?

My guess is it’s a bit of both.