There is a well-known Buddhist parable about the first and second arrows. The first arrow is pain. The second arrow is suffering.
Have you ever thought of pain and suffering as two different things? Surely if we are in pain, we are also suffering. Not according to the idea of the two arrows.
The first arrow is pain: physical, emotional, or mental. We can’t avoid or prevent pain unless we sit alone in a dark room and never interact with the world. But even then, wouldn’t that be painful in its own way? While we can’t control the pain, we can control our response to the pain.
This is where the second arrow comes in.
We can control whether we get shot with the second arrow because the second arrow is suffering. Suffering comes from our reaction to the pain: complaining, blaming, over-analyzing, distracting…
“WHY can’t I do anything right?”
If we get caught in this cycle of suffering, it’s like being shot by two arrows, then three, then four, and so on. Pain is inevitable, but suffering is not. But often we take that second arrow without giving much thought to how we can avoid it.
A little while ago, I went through a series of horrible events in a short period of time. I fell down the stairs, which resulted in a dislocated elbow and broken wrist, had surgery, broke up with my boyfriend, moved (which isn’t horrible all on its own but is another stress), and then to top it all off, my identity got stolen.
I laugh at this part of my life mostly out of desperation. It was brutal. I was in pain. Physically as I dealt with the slow process of healing and rehabilitating. I couldn’t work, couldn’t drive, couldn’t even put my hair in a ponytail. I was in pain emotionally as I tried to overcome that break up that I thought would never have happened. That relationship was supposed to be it but then things just kind of fell apart and it was all my fault. I felt guilty and sad. I was in pain mentally as I tried to work up the energy to even deal with my identity theft and doctor’s appointments and work.
I couldn’t avoid all of that pain. It happened, and I had no choice but to figure out how to get through (there were a lot of tears. A LOT).
But I also allowed myself to suffer.
Why is this happening to me?
Why am I destined to have a bad life?
What did I do wrong to cause all this?
Why can’t I do anything right?
Haven’t I had enough pain?
If something even slightly inconvenient happened, I threw myself back into that spiral of blame: blaming myself, blaming God, blaming karma, whatever. Car has a flat tire? This is just how my life is now. Grocery store doesn’t have what I need? Of course it doesn’t because the world is out to get me.
I was always on the look out for the next terrible thing that would happen to me. As you can probably guess, I was miserable. In my mind, no one had it as bad as I did.
Thankfully, I’m out of that mess for the most part. I feel like I didn’t come out of those experiences quite the same. I realized how important my people are, the ones who stopped at nothing to keep me going. But honestly, I’m also a little bitter, a little bit still on guard for the next set of terrible things.
If I could re-live it (oh please don’t make me), I’d try to suffer less. To see the joy where there is some, to self-care and relax, to cry when I need to but sing with joy at other times.
What pain are you experiencing right now? What can you do to shield yourself from the second arrow?
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