I recently filled my ears with a podcast in a moment when I needed a distraction – when my own thoughts were leading me to unhealthy places. On this particular day it was Glennon Doyle’s “We Can Do Hard Things” podcast which often leaves me both smiling and quietly contemplating after I venture into an episode. During this recent episode a Buddhist parable was explained. The message sunk in deeply when I heard it and has stayed with me ever since.
Imagine yourself walking through a forest when you are suddenly struck by an arrow. The arrow causes intense unavoidable pain. Then a second arrow strikes causing even more pain. Could the second arrow have been avoided?
Each time we suffer a misfortune two arrows fly our way. The first arrow is an event or circumstance that is out of our control. We don’t get the job, receive a bad medical diagnosis, or a global pandemic happens. This arrow causes inevitable pain. It is out of our control. The second arrow is how we respond to the first one. It’s the one we have control over. If we respond to the first arrow in an understanding, open, and compassionate way we can avoid the strike of the second arrow. But if we respond in a way that simply adds more pain then we are essentially stabbing ourselves with this second arrow.
Recently while out for a run with my leashed dog I encountered a couple walking their own dog. I approached them from behind and made a quick pass, swinging out into the middle of the road as I went by them. Their dog, on a leash as well, reacted aggressively but was restrained by the owner. Immediately after I passed them I heard shouting. I stopped and turned and then proceeded to receive an earful of barking from this couple who was upset because they felt that I didn’t give them enough space when I passed them. They were loud and abrasive. Surprised by their anger, I listened and apologized for not giving them adequate space while also reminding them that they turned around and saw me coming, which assigns a shared responsibility for each party to know their own dog’s behavior and respond accordingly. My dog was not the one that reacted aggressively in this situation so it seemed off to me to be blamed for their dog’s behavior. Nevertheless they felt I passed too closely, so I apologized and was on my way. No harm done – so you would think.
I carried on with my run with my dog by my side and proceeded to replay this encounter over and over and over again in my mind. At first I was proud of how I handled it. I thought they were unreasonably angry and confrontational, and my reaction diffused the situation and got me out of there quickly. But I was angry too. So as I ran I began to play out in my mind a variety of responses I could have said – some polite and direct and others not at all helpful but tremendously satisfying to think about. Then I started to feel less proud of the way I handled the situation. I let these unreasonable people yell at me. I didn’t even fully stand up for myself. I accepted all of the nonsense they were shouting by apologizing when I didn’t even believe I owed them an apology. I began to feel more angry and self righteous. I then started playing out scenarios in my mind about what I would say or do if I came across them again. This went on for my entire run. A time that I rely on to clear my mind and settle my system, and there I was getting all worked up over something so very small. When I got home it continued in my mind for quite some time. I kept catching myself going back to this story in my head again and again. It went on for hours. I couldn’t stop it no matter how many times I told myself to let it go.
After listening to Glennon’s podcast and hearing about this tangible idea of the arrows I realized how often I repeatedly stab myself with the second arrow. I do it in really small situations, like with the couple and their dog where I let those moments steal hours from me in rumination. And I do it with much bigger and more consequential situations where I let those moments become evidence of my brokenness and worthlessness. I take that second arrow and stab the hell out of myself with it until the next one comes. Then I pick that one up and repeat the process.
This blinding dose of self awareness makes me notice two things. First, it makes it seem more possible to change how I feel and how I self destructively respond in different situations. It may be a huge undertaking, but breaking it down into this simple example of arrows offers a sense of control over the outcome – a path towards less self inflicted pain. It also makes me feel bad, almost shameful, to notice how often and how strongly I react this way and how much energy and healthy thinking I rob from myself in the process. Just recognizing how much of a self-destructive default pattern this is for me ignites a natural urge to stab myself with an arrow for it.
This parable is such a simple lesson. We get hit by arrows every day. Things happen. Our car breaks down, we don’t get the job, a relationship fails, a couple yells at you on a run, or (as I am coping with this week) your therapist takes a vacation. We can’t control any of those things. But each time we respond in a way that doesn’t serve us well we are simply allowing ourselves to be struck by a second arrow.
Almost two years ago, at the beginning of the pandemic, I picked up a paintbrush and revisited an old passion of mine. Drawing and painting have always been an interest but often existed in the background with only occasional inspiration. In recent years art has developed into a therapeutic means of self expression and has enabled me to access feelings that are often difficult to wrap words around.
When the pandemic began and my part time job was replaced with remote learning facilitation duties for my two kids, I dove into a creative project that I am now close to completing. I decided to dig through photographs from my favorite trips, places, and memories and paint them. I devoted a room in my house to hang all of these painted memories. As the months passed by more and more paintings were completed and added to this collection. The more I painted the more I enjoyed it.
Almost two years later and the walls of this room that I have devoted to this creative project are nearly filled. I still have plans to paint a few more, but this project is now nearing its end. The interesting part about this challenge that I ventured into is that now as I look back at my first paintings in this series I see them differently. I see parts that I like as well as ways in which I might approach the paintings slightly different – color choices I would tweak, composition choices I would alter, or details I know I can express better now.
Reflecting on this past art work has caused some deeper thinking. I can see in my paintings that my skills have improved over time. It may not be a quantitative measure like improving a test score or a race time, but I see growth in areas that I struggled with at the beginning, and I even see growth where I didn’t know I needed to grow.
As I sit here today in a space of personal struggle – with uncertainty of my value here – doubting my own self worth and purpose – perhaps my paintings can show me something I’ve been failing to see.
Sometimes it’s hard to know where we stand. Sometimes it’s hard to have the proper perspective to find the space that exists between our shortcomings, our own personal growth, and our potential. It can feel so dark and murky that it just feels safer to shrink down in place. Perhaps this reflection on my painting process can be a reminder to look back and remember the struggles that have been overcome and the growth that has occurred. Perhaps then it might be possible to pave the way for a new healthier perspective that has seemed otherwise impossible.
My daughter went through a phase when she was young where she brought a backpack with her everywhere she went. I’m sure this was a phase born from a variety of factors. For one, she was really excited about this new brightly colored backpack that was given to her. She also watched and wished to emulate the grownups in her life who carried important belongings with them in various bags. And she watched just enough kids tv shows, like Dora the Explorer, to know that she wanted to be ready for adventure at any time. So naturally her backpack was filled with everything that her young mind considered essential – a stuffed animal, a toy magnifying glass, a purple beaded necklace, and an empty metal mint container repurposed just in case she needed a place to collect and protect something very small. In her mind she was prepared for anything and carried these valuables with care wherever she went.
I too carry a backpack. But mine is different than the backpack my young daughter carried, and it’s different than the ones you see on the backs of strangers walking down the street. My backpack cannot be seen. It is only felt.
I cannot absorb the kindness of another while in their presence. I try. I sometimes get close. But something exists within me that prevents these types of messages from fully penetrating and resonating in front of others. Instead I have learned that in order for me to feel the full impact of another person’s kindness or support I need to pack up their words and intentions and take them with me. Much like the prized possessions wrapped up and placed in my daughter’s backpack, these messages are protected and carefully carried with me. Later while in solitude I can safely set my backpack down, unzip it, peek inside, and slowly let the messages emerge. Here they can get closer to me, slowly reaching the places within that they were meant for. I can feel a softening inside that was not possible while in the company of others. It feels different. It feels warm and safe and inviting. So I take my time with this process. I let their words linger, fluttering around me at first, weaving and dodging the swift countermeasures that occur from the dark places within. Slowly and carefully they circle around me before landing and softly soaking in. I feel a weightlessness in my chest that makes it easier to breathe. I feel a quieting inside that is almost as startling as it is refreshing. I want to savor these moments. I want to draw them out and let them last forever. So I hold on tight and try to replay their words and their support over and over again in my mind. This often works for me.
Although I wish it was possible to accomplish all of this in the moment, in the face of the one whose words I wish to absorb, that is not a realistic expectation I can place on myself at this time. Maybe someday. But for now my backpack system will suffice. This process has been a part of me for quite some time now. It’s been part of a purposeful progression – of slowly learning to let the kind words of another reach a place beyond the protective surface that tries to filter and distort them. It’s an intentional practice, and one I wish to improve upon.
Lately I have found myself in a recurring place of heavy struggle. My sense of self worth and purpose feels continually challenged by self destructive messages from within. I reach for options and solutions that simply feel like trapdoors, leading me to an ever sinking feeling that the message I am receiving from the universe is that I have no value here. It’s a painfully lonely and desperate hollow feeling that keeps finding me. I can’t see clearly when these thoughts take over, and I feel as though I’ve exhausted all viable options to find my way out.
Surrender is not a choice I wish to consider. So although feelings of being a burden or a soul sucking leach to others are immense at times, I continue to convince myself to reach out for help in the form of therapy and friendship connection. The support is there. I can hear it when I am in their presence. The messages are strong. I can recognize that I need to hold onto them and take them with me. But something isn’t working the same. By the time I reach into my backpack for their supportive words in private it feels like they have disappeared. I can’t find them. They’ve vanished. It’s almost as if a hole has formed in the bottom of my backpack and every ounce of supportive kindness that had been carefully packed in there now trickles out long before I even have the chance to access it. By the time I land in solitude, unzip my backpack, and reach inside I find nothing but dark emptiness. The messages have fallen out somewhere along the way and are long forgotten. I am left with nothing but the internal dialogue that I was trying to override in the first place. I’m left questioning if the messages and support were even real to begin with. Were they ever really there? Were they even meant for me? And why would I think I deserved them?
I keep looking for external ways to pull me out of this dangerous head space I keep finding myself in. What can I do? What can I physically put in place outside of myself to focus on to move forward? While I recognize that external factors cannot fix something broken within, I do know that momentum can be gained from putting certain outside pieces in place for myself. But when I continue to fail in these efforts and begin to spin in thoughts of hopelessness, I wonder how I can possibly continue to keep digging, clawing, and searching to find another way. Maybe nothing can stick. Maybe nothing will help. Maybe there is no outside option right now. Maybe instead of trying to find a way out I need to focus my attention and figure out how to mend the hole in my backpack.
Everyone has their limit. Everyone has their own personal breaking point. What’s yours? Do you think you know? Do you think you could tell if you were getting close to it? What if approaching this limit was like trying to navigate through a thick dark fog after being bound up and spun around in circles a few hundred times? How are you supposed to know where, when, and how to move when you are unable to even recognize where you stand in space? How would you know if you were standing at your edge – at your own personal limit? Maybe it’s only a matter of one step forward, or back, or to the side that spells safety or peril. But how could you tell if you were that close, and how could you possibly determine which way you needed to go?
Maybe you test all conceivable options. You outstretch your leg in each blind direction all around you, mapping the edges of safety with your foot as it carefully reads each surface like Braille. You find that you are trapped and can’t make safe progress unless you find another way. Something from deep within urges you to keep trying – to find another way. So with only the resources on and around you, you build ladders and bridges and try to make them long enough and sturdy enough to connect you to safety. But everything you construct seems to crumble under your own weight. You try to reinforce your failing ladders and bridges with nuts and bolts and duct tape and super glue and silly putty and bubble gum – with anything that might help – with anything that could make a difference. You try everything you can think of to help navigate your way out of this space. Yet you come up short – again and again and again. This leaves you with nothing but disappearing options. So you stand frozen in place for a while, thinking that maybe a new path will emerge if you can just think hard enough and be patient enough – because hope drives you to believe that a way out must somehow still exist. This flicker of hope is what keeps you searching – keeps you driving towards a belief in what might still be possible. You hang onto this hope. You need this hope. It’s your only way.
But what if while you are waiting and searching and holding onto hope the ground begins to crack and crumble and disappear beneath your feet. As you scramble for new options the edge you fear continues to creep closer and closer to you. You try to get smaller. You try to occupy less space than you require, folding yourself into a ball of crumbling hopeless self protection. Your efforts feel futile. You fail time and time again. You begin to feel a sinking force take hold of you – a convincing voice that echoes a message you do not want to own. Yet this voice tries to claim you. It’s message is loud and very clear. It leaves you questioning everything you reach for and everything you search for because none of it can actually be attained. In the end you start to believe this message. In the end it starts to become a part of you. In the end you realize that maybe chasing hope and purpose is nothing more than a fool’s game.
This series of art is inspired by the symbolic nature of the beauty within the changing seasons. It is a reminder to slow down, pay attention, and soak in the details of each moment. When I am in struggle painting helps to clear my mind and make space for thoughts outside of the ones that feel pressing and consuming. While I may currently find myself relating to these barren trees I see before me, a search within for a reframe guides my way towards more hopeful thinking.
“Take a breath and rest your weary soul – for life will bloom again.”
This series of art is inspired by the symbolic nature of the beauty within the changing seasons. It is a reminder to slow down, pay attention, and soak in the details of each moment. When I am in struggle painting helps to clear my mind and make space for thoughts outside of the ones that feel pressing and consuming. This painting is the result of an attempt to redirect myself out of a dark place.
Welcome to the 5th creation of my “Seasons” series.
“Meet me in the middle of your story when the soul is worn but wise.”
There is a hollow place that finds me. It knows me by name. Its reach can cover any distance I travel. Its strength can multiply, creeping and surrounding me as it wishes.
There is a hollow place that hunts me. It lurks and stalks and waits for the prime moment to pounce. Its jagged grip pierces and swallows upon contact, making it hard to distinguish where my body ends and its darkness begins.
There is a hollow place that seeks my surrender. Its isolating presence, although ominous and layered with pain, is familiar to me. Its constant company tries to convince me that my efforts to evade its grip are insufficient.
There is a hollow place that believes it has already won. It feels rooted inside of me. Can I possibly convince it that there is still fight left in me? Can I convince myself?