The second arrow
The first time it happened he was eight years old.
He was engrossed in play and didn’t want to stop. He had an accident.
Ashamed, he went to tell his mother. She was in one of her dark moods. She slapped him across the face and told him he was worthless.
He was stunned for a moment, then started wailing. She lifted her hand and warned him she would give him something to cry about if he didn’t stop. He stopped, shoving the pain down deep.
The second time he was seventeen.
He had started rebelling. Coming home too late. Partying and drinking. Fooling around with girls. Painting graffiti with his friends.
He staggered into the house at 4 a.m. one morning, drunk and irritable. He stared at himself in the mirror and saw her standing behind him. She told him he would never amount to anything. He felt the sting of her hand. He didn’t cry this time, but his anger boiled.
It happened again when he was twenty-six. Thanks to a caring and wise school counselor who took him under her wing, he had gotten his anger under control and cleaned himself up. Gone to college. Secured a job and a girlfriend, whom he loved deeply.
But when his girlfriend left him, he was devastated. When he saw his mother, he knew what to expect. He didn’t even wince this time. He stood with his head down and let it land. He told himself he deserved it.
It happened even more frequently the older he got and the more he screwed up.
He lost his job. SMACK!
An amazing opportunity arose to showcase his art, which he’d been doing secretly for years. He didn’t take advantage of it. SMACK!
He lied to his wife. SMACK!
He started drinking again. SMACK!
It got to the point where it was happening almost daily, and at the slightest provocation.
One day, at the age of forty-one, he decided he had had enough. He went to see his wise old counselor, with whom he had kept in touch over the years.
He told her, “I can’t get my mother to stop slapping me and calling me worthless. I’m so tired of living like this. What should I do?”
She nodded wisely. “Tell me again how old you were the first time it happened.”
“I was eight,” he said. He wept as he recounted the story to her again.
“I remember you sharing that with me when you were in high school,” she said. “And how old were you when she passed away?”
“Twelve,” he answered.
She reached out and held his hand and they sat for a moment, him in grieving, her in compassion.
“I understand,” she said. “Our most traumatic events in life continually haunt us. They determine our self-worth and influence all our decisions. There’s only one way to change that.”
The old woman shuffled to her bookshelves, pulled a book off the shelf, and handed it to him. “Read this,” she said, pointing to a highlighted section.
“When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed person sorrows, grieves, laments, beats his breast, and becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental.”
He looked up at her.
She said, “That was the Buddha teaching his disciples about the ‘second arrow.’ The first arrow is a painful event that happens to us. The second arrow is the mental suffering we cause ourselves by replaying the pain of the first arrow over and over again in our minds.
“We shoot ourselves with shame and embarrassment, rage and revenge, hatred and resentment.
“The first arrow is unavoidable pain. The second arrow is unnecessary suffering.
“So in your case, who was it that fired the first arrow?”
“My mother,” he said.
“Right,” she responded. “And who has been firing the second arrow non-stop ever since the first one hit you?”
“Me,” he admitted.
“That’s right,” she affirmed. “Your mother hit you and called you worthless one time. You can’t take back that first arrow. But you can stop firing that second arrow at yourself by reliving that experience over and over again.
“Your mother hasn’t been hitting you and telling you you’re worthless. You’ve been doing that to yourself. You couldn’t stop what she did to you when you were eight. But you can stop what you’re doing to yourself now any time you want.
“Would you like to learn how?”
She handed him the book again and pointed to another passage from the Buddha. He read,
“‘He abused me and beat me, he threw me down and robbed me.’ Repeat these thoughts and you live in hate. ‘He abused me and beat me, he threw me down and robbed me.’ Abandon these thoughts and live in love. In this world, hatred never ceases by hatred, but by love alone is healed. This is the ancient and eternal law.”