Pema Chödrön tells a great story:
A Buddhist monk in training approached his teacher and told him that when he meditated, his back hurt. He went on to say that this clearly indicated that he wasn’t cut out to be a monk, and that he was a failure at everything he had tried and…the teacher interrupted and said, “So what you’re telling me is that your back hurts.”
“Yes!” said the young man, “I have failed at meditation, and so cannot fulfill my dream of becoming a monk, and…” The teacher smiled and said kindly, “What I am hearing is that your back hurts.” “Yes!” said the monk, “I’m a failure…”
“So,” said the teacher, “Your back hurts…”
Life is harsh. Bad things happen. Disappointments pile up as the years go on. It’s difficult enough without piling on more drama. Everything that happens to us can become fodder for embellishment – it’s the “what it means” part of any life event, even the most mundane, that makes life harder than it needs to be. Our “poor me” stories, carefully fashioned, most since childhood, not only damage our integrity as adults, but also undermine our ability to cope with life’s ups and downs without added pain.
The worst part is that we do it to ourselves. Buddhists call this the “second arrow.” The first arrow is whatever life throws at us that is causing pain. The second arrow is the story we pile on top of it, causing 10 times more pain.
Something happened, so I’m a failure. I always fail. I’ll never have what I want. It’s not fair, and it’ll NEVER be different.
An easy way to spot the arrows: the words always and never. These are two of my favorite words, unfortunately, and I am an expert at turning even the smallest inconveniences into epic tragedies, with long-term consequences. This weakness caused me much pain throughout my life, but it’s not as easy to stop as you might imagine. Even though I’m much older and wiser, I still catch myself assuming the worst about everything.
I’m not a pessimist, and I don’t believe in fate, per se. I am very much an optimist, but when bad things happen, I do whatever needs to be done to remedy the situation (if there is something to be done, which, of course, is not always the case), and then I start spinning the story about what it means.
I’m cursed. Nothing ever works out. I will never have the life I want. Blah, blah, blah.
Ridiculous, of course. I am blessed in so many ways, and I have incredible luck most of the time. I know that, and yet, when the proverbial shit hits the fan, I get lost in it. I fire the second, third, and fourth arrows and I succumb to them.
I’ve been struggling with a deep depression these last few weeks, and I’m particularly apt to pull out the bow and quiver when I’m in this state. I start berating myself for being so self-absorbed when there are people suffering legitimately horrific losses like a tornado that happened near here recently, the shootings in Uvalde and Buffalo, the Russian assault on Ukraine. I feel guilty for feeling badly – or worse, not feeling at all, which is more likely with depression – when I have no real reason to.
The reality is simply that I’m depressed. Period. It’s something I’ve dealt with most of my life, and it will pass, sooner or later. It’s bad enough without piling on guilt and frustration and impatience. Instead of bemoaning my fate and mentally reciting my Litany of Loss over and over, I should be patting myself on the back for getting to work everyday and continuing to meet my responsibilities at home, even though my energy level is at rock-bottom, and what I’d really like to do is crawl in bed until it’s over.
Life is hard for everybody in some way. Give yourself a break. Be patient, and treat yourself gently and kindly. Fire those arrows into the air and let them fall harmlessly to earth. Better yet, hang up the bow and the quiver altogether. Find a way to keep going through whatever it is you’re facing without causing yourself or anyone else additional (unnecessary) pain.
Everything has a season, and life moves quickly. This too shall pass.
Hang in there.