The Second Arrow — a choice to help or harm oneself
I recently filled my ears with a podcast in a moment when I needed a distraction — when my own thoughts were leading me to unhealthy places. On this particular day it was Glennon Doyle’s “We Can Do Hard Things” podcast which often leaves me both smiling and quietly contemplating after I venture into an episode. During this recent episode a Buddhist parable was explained. The message sunk in deeply when I heard it and has stayed with me ever since.
Imagine yourself walking through a forest when you are suddenly struck by an arrow. The arrow causes intense unavoidable pain. Then a second arrow strikes causing even more pain. Could the second arrow have been avoided?
Each time we suffer a misfortune two arrows fly our way. The first arrow is an event or circumstance that is out of our control. We don’t get the job, receive a bad medical diagnosis, or a global pandemic happens. This arrow causes inevitable pain. It is out of our control. The second arrow is how we respond to the first one. It’s the one we have control over. If we respond to the first arrow in an understanding, open, and compassionate way we can avoid the strike of the second arrow. But if we respond in a way that simply adds more pain then we are essentially stabbing ourselves with this second arrow.
Recently while out for a run with my leashed dog I encountered a couple walking their own dog. I approached them from behind and made a quick pass, swinging out into the middle of the road as I went by them. Their dog, on a leash as well, reacted aggressively but was restrained by the owner. Immediately after I passed them I heard shouting. I stopped and turned and then proceeded to receive an earful of barking from this couple who was upset because they felt that I didn’t give them enough space when I passed them. They were loud and abrasive. Surprised by their anger, I listened and apologized for not giving them adequate space while also reminding them that they turned around and saw me coming, which assigns a shared responsibility for each party to know their own dog’s behavior and respond accordingly. My dog was not the one that reacted aggressively in this situation so it seemed off to me to be blamed for their dog’s behavior. Nevertheless they felt I passed too closely, so I apologized and was on my way. No harm done — so you would think.
I carried on with my run with my dog by my side and proceeded to replay this encounter over and over and over again in my mind. At first I was proud of how I handled it. I thought they were unreasonably angry and confrontational, and my reaction diffused the situation and got me out of there quickly. But I was angry too. So as I ran I began to play out in my mind a variety of responses I could have said — some polite and direct and others not at all helpful but tremendously satisfying to think about. Then I started to feel less proud of the way I handled the situation. I let these unreasonable people yell at me. I didn’t even fully stand up for myself. I accepted all of the nonsense they were shouting by apologizing when I didn’t even believe I owed them an apology. I began to feel more angry and self righteous. I then started playing out scenarios in my mind about what I would say or do if I came across them again. This went on for my entire run. A time that I rely on to clear my mind and settle my system, and there I was getting all worked up over something so very small. When I got home it continued in my mind for quite some time. I kept catching myself going back to this story in my head again and again. It went on for hours. I couldn’t stop it no matter how many times I told myself to let it go.
After listening to Glennon’s podcast and hearing about this tangible idea of the arrows I realized how often I repeatedly stab myself with the second arrow. I do it in really small situations, like with the couple and their dog where I let those moments steal hours from me in rumination. And I do it with much bigger and more consequential situations where I let those moments become evidence of my brokenness and worthlessness. I take that second arrow and stab the hell out of myself with it until the next one comes. Then I pick that one up and repeat the process.
This blinding dose of self awareness makes me notice two things. First, it makes it seem more possible to change how I feel and how I self destructively respond in different situations. It may be a huge undertaking, but breaking it down into this simple example of arrows offers a sense of control over the outcome — a path towards less self inflicted pain. It also makes me feel bad, almost shameful, to notice how often and how strongly I react this way and how much energy and healthy thinking I rob from myself in the process. Just recognizing how much of a self-destructive default pattern this is for me ignites a natural urge to stab myself with an arrow for it.
This parable is such a simple lesson. We get hit by arrows every day. Things happen. Our car breaks down, we don’t get the job, a relationship fails, a couple yells at you on a run, or (as I am coping with this week) your therapist takes a vacation. We can’t control any of those things. But each time we respond in a way that doesn’t serve us well we are simply allowing ourselves to be struck by a second arrow.