A man loses his job so he heads down to the bar and spends the next few weeks drinking and wallowing in self-pity. One night, he finds himself alone with the bartender and the bartender asks him, “What’s your story?” The man tells him that he just lost his job, has had a terrible time of it, and has no other options. He explains to the bartender how his life has become incredibly hard and things have only gotten worse since he was let go. He explains how drinking at the bar has become his only source of pleasure and that he needs it just to get by. The bartender stops and looks at the man. “I’ve seen you in here for the past few weeks, how long ago did you lose your job?” “It’s been a few months actually,” says the man. The bartender, a practicing Buddhist, looks the man dead in the eye and tells him, “My friend, you’ve been shooting the second arrow. Don’t shoot the second arrow.”
Don’t shoot the second arrow is a Buddhist principle telling us what not to do after misfortune befalls us. According to this metaphor, the first arrow is the misfortunate incident itself, and the second arrow is our negative reaction to it. By telling someone not to shoot the second arrow, we are telling them not to make an unfortunate situation worse than it already is by reacting in a negative way.
In the brief scenario above, the man finds himself doing just that. Without realizing it, he has made his situation far worse than it already was. Drinking and neglecting his own search for a new job has made him in a much worse position than if he had immediately spent the time looking for a new job.
However, the real question here is why. Why do we have a desire to do things that ultimately harm us more after doing something unfortunate happens to us? Why do we have an urge to shoot the second arrow when we ultimately know that it will do us no good?
We don’t realize we’re shooting the second arrow
Well, there are several answers to this. Perhaps the first reason, and the easiest to alleviate, is that we may not realize that we are shooting the second arrow. This is the case with the man who loses his job. His natural response to misfortune is to drink, and so he shoots the second arrow almost out of instinct.
This is why it’s incredibly important to be able to recognize what we have the power to control and what is out of our control. One way to make sure we aren’t shooting the second arrow unconsciously is to ask ourselves these three questions, “Is the problem something I can control? Is it something I can change? Or is it something I can let go of?” To understand more about dissecting problems, I have an article called Three Question to Ask When Confronting Any Problem.
We don’t care that we’re shooting the second arrow
Another reason for shooting the second arrow can be because we think that whatever misfortune has befallen us is so bad that we don’t care what happens to us next. While this might be how we feel at the time, it’s important to remember that things can always be worse. Things can always also get better. That’s why a negative reaction to a negative situation is counter-productive, no matter how unfortunate and damaging the first arrow may be.
But how can you stop this negative reaction when you have something really terrible happen to you? The answer is to allow yourself to grieve. Allow yourself to fully feel what has happened and not push those feelings away with destructive habits. While this may be easier said than done, it is still crucial to remember in any time of crisis.
We want to make things right and just
Another reason, and the final reason I’m going to talk about, is that we may shoot the second arrow at someone else in an effort to make things “right” or to get revenge. This is almost always counter-productive and ultimately does more harm than good. Shooting the second arrow at someone else doesn’t end the misfortune. It simply spreads it. And if the person who originally harmed you is in any way like you, you both will undoubtedly be shooting third and fourth arrows as well.
A quote that is helpful when dealing with the desire for revenge comes from the classic fantasy novel The Lord of The Rings, in which Gandalf tells Frodo this when he begins to pass judgement on the creature Gollum,
“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter 2
This sentiment is very in line with Buddhist principles. For we are not always able to see what will happen. However, acting in a way that fosters our own healthy future, even if we can’t quite see it clearly, is the only right choice.
All in all, it’s important to remember that whatever happens to us, no matter how unfortunate, we can get through it. And if we choose not to shoot the second arrow, we will get through it all the faster and be better off for it.