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The Second Arrow

 A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise dispenses knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly. Proverbs 15:1-2

All human beings possess a secret wisdom-power. It is not secret because it is hidden but because it is so seldom used. It is the power to pause and reflect prior to reacting. Taking a short pause before responding to a situation almost always has a positive impact on what happens in the aftermath. As a hypothetical example, I have a strained relationship with a co-worker who angrily barges into my office and accuses me of starting a nasty rumor about her personal life. I vehemently deny starting the rumor and immediately accuse her of being the source of the rumor since all she ever talks about is her personal life. Using the metaphor of arrows, the first arrow, in this case, was my co-worker angrily barging into my office and falsely accusing me. It probably hurt. The second arrow, however, was my angry reaction, which wounded her right back. Which arrow is most likely to perpetuate the strained relationship? The second arrow, of course. Because I responded on gut instinct instead of using my super-power to pause and reflect before reacting, I loosed a second arrow that made a stressful situation worse. We can blame the first arrow for initiating the ugly process, but we cannot grow spiritually until we recognize and accept responsibility for the second arrow.

In Buddhism there is the lesson of The Second Arrow, which goes like this:

“The Buddha was giving a teaching to an assembly of his monks and nuns. He asked, “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful?”

The monks and nuns replied, “Yes, it is.”

The Buddha then asked, “If the person is struck by a second arrow, is that even more painful?”

The assembly replied again, “Yes, it is.”

Then the Buddha explained, “In life, we cannot always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. The second arrow is optional.”

As long as we are alive, we will have painful experiences, which are like the first arrow. To get all upset by the first arrow and condemn, judge, criticize, hate, or deny the first arrow is like being struck by a second arrow. Many times the first arrow is out of our control, but the arrow of reactivity is not.”[1]

My workplace example, above, is about a relationship with a co-worker. Had I considered how best to react, I might have been able to redeem the first arrow into an opportunity for healing the brokenness between us. I might have invited a deeper exploration of her pain and fear. Who knows, I might have even discovered something in myself that was subtlely contributing to the situation. There is an old saying, attributed as Native American wisdom, that goes, “I will not criticize a person until I have walked 30 days in her shoes.” Everyone is fighting a difficult battle of which we know little.

The lesson of the Second Arrow, however, goes beyond interpersonal relationships to our own inner life. How we react to situations in our lives matters – not just because of its impact on others, but because of its impact on us! We cannot control who wages unfair criticism our way. We cannot control receiving a cancer diagnosis or being hit by a drunk driver or finding ourselves in the path of a tornado. We can, however, always control our response – the second arrow.

The difference between the first and second arrows mirrors the difference between pain and suffering. Pain happens to all of us – physical, emotional, and mental pain. It all hurts, but it is also a shared human experience. We are all pierced by the first arrow from time to time, so there is really no need to describe how much worse my pain is than yours. What we do with our pain, how we respond to our pain, determines the degree to which we suffer from that pain. This is a difficult lesson to learn because we all want to get rid of our pain, and rightly so. When we cannot change it, however, we need to find ways to live with it in the best way possible. That is how we minimize our suffering – by accepting that which we cannot change in this moment. That is how we keep our second arrow in its quiver where it will not deepen the wound already inflicted. That is using our super-power to pause and reflect before reacting.

This is the 25th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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[1] Jerome Freedman, The Second Arrow. http://mountainsangha.org/second-arrow/, January 3, 2015.

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