Editor’s Notebook: The second arrow
As the world gains distance from the most difficult moments of the pandemic, one video snippet keeps playing in my mind. The footage isn’t of eerily empty city streets, piled-up body bags, crates of “personal protective equipment,” or overflowing hospitals.
On a loop, I see three women in a grocery store fighting over a package of toilet paper. Watch the clip and you’ll see that two of them are pushing a cart already filled with Quilton yet willing to brawl for a few more rolls.
Amid all of the death and sadness of that period, that’s what I keep thinking about: the way fear degrades society, degrades all of us. A million small riots that coalesce into an unbridgeable divide – or worse.
Coronavirus is no longer the crisis of the moment, but the darkness it elevated remains. It is embedded in America’s heartless politics, its dehumanization of “the other,” its mythologizing of “good old days” that weren’t good for everybody or even most.
But this isn’t a column about a broken nation. It’s about the choices all of us make, like the women in the grocery store, in the wake of unavoidable pain.
For years – decades – I have searched for the path that would lead me away from suffering. Again, I’m referring here not to acute pain but the chronic suffering we create for ourselves by compulsively analyzing the past and imagining the future. I believe this is a universal, human problem and that all of the world’s people who truly live in the present moment and thus free of suffering would fit on a school bus.
Their wisdom, boiled down to its essence, reflects this fundamental truth about our world: Suffering is a choice. A Buddhist parable explains it this way, as described by writer Samantha Wallen in a 2017 Medium post: “There is a sutra in Buddhism called ‘The Arrow.’ It says that in life, two arrows strike us. The first arrow is the unavoidable pain of life. No one escapes being struck by this arrow. … But then, most of us are struck by the second arrow – the arrow of suffering. … It’s the way our mind turns pain into ongoing story-thoughts that we are bad, not good enough, someone is to blame for our pain, life just isn’t fair, etc. … This one we can escape. It’s optional. In fact, it’s the only thing we ever really have any control over.”
I have spent my life reading and listening to spiritual teachers so that I, too, could learn how to dodge the second arrow. Every passage, every lecture has convinced me that I am getting closer to the bus. Even amid the sages’ protestations that they have nothing to sell and nothing to teach – that the answer is simple and already in my possession – I have tried to build my little safe space out of the scraps of their wisdom.
I have dreamed of paradise as a secure place.
Watch the clip of people fighting over toilet paper and maybe you’ll shake your head. You and I would never do such a thing, would we? We are more reasonable and better behaved. We believe in law and order and have more self control. We put the good of others ahead of our own selfish desires. We adhere to the tenets of civil society.
We keep our suffering to ourselves.
Only we don’t, do we? Suffering is our reason for acting outside of our own morals and beliefs. It is why we hurt people we care about and flip off the stranger who cut us off during the evening commute. It is the tool we use to rationalize our anger, our hatred, and our hypocrisy.
The sting of the second arrow – not the first – is how we come to believe that our happiness, our victory, our security is more important than somebody else’s.
I know now that the wise people on the bus are telling the truth when they say they have nothing to sell and nothing to teach. All this time they have been standing in the space between the first arrow and the second, pointing.
I thought they were directing me to safety, teaching me how to find the tranquil path. But I had it wrong. There is no path, no secure place, and no epiphany. I see that now.
I guess I was so busy trying to dodge every arrow that I never noticed the bow in my hands.