Suffering Is Optional
Updated: Dec 8, 2020
Pain is inevitable, yet suffering is optional. This is a relatively radical notion. Radical because it places the responsibility for your suffering in your hands.
“You cut the turkey without me?” asked Uncle Gabriel incredulously in his thick Polish accent. This greatest line of dialogue in any Thanksgiving movie, according to film critic Roger Ebert, occurred in a scene in the 1990 movie Avalon, a beautiful American story about the assimilation of a Polish Jewish family in 1940s and 1950s Baltimore. Toward the end of the movie, Uncle Gabriel, who is maddeningly and consistently late to family get-togethers, shows up late once again, prompting the patriarch of the family to announce they are cutting the turkey moments before Gabriel’s tardy arrival. What ensues is the break-up of a family triggered by the emotional reaction of an elder incapable of dealing with the strains of a new culture and, as you will see below, the limits of his own mind.
That a simple slight can be the proximate cause of the rupture of a family is, at the same time, both tragic and predictable. Human beings have the unique proclivity to transform minor transgressions into catastrophic events. The Buddha spoke of this in one of his famous teachings, posing the following question to a student. If you are shot with an arrow, would you turn around and shoot yourself with another arrow? According to the parable of the second arrow, as it is referred, the first arrow represents the initial stimulus, one which is outside of your control: a disparaging remark, an unfortunate turn of events, a physical injury. The pain we associate with this first arrow is, in some sense, inevitable. The second arrow, however, is entirely of your own making. It is the story you construct about why the remark is so unacceptable. Or why the situation you are facing shouldn’t have happened to you. Or why the illness you have contracted is unfair. It is this second arrow, the interpretation that cutting the turkey early is unacceptable, that is the source of all suffering.
Pain is inevitable, yet suffering is optional. This is a relatively radical notion. Radical because it places the responsibility for your suffering in your hands. It removes your ability to blame others or circumstances. But it is impossible to deny its truth. Think about anything unpleasant in your life. If you examine it closely enough, you will see that it is the attachment to your thoughts and beliefs that is the source of your anxiety, fear, sadness, anger, or frustration. The suffering from the first arrow has an incredibly short half-life. It is your story about the first arrow, the self-inflicted second arrow, that extends this half-life from seconds or minutes to days, months, or years. Freedom and effectiveness in life, I have discovered, is the ability to discern the difference between the first and second arrows. And to take responsibility for the second. This is hard, ongoing work. It requires giving up the need to be right all the time and developing the capacity to slow down and observe the mind.
I hope your Thanksgiving was full of health and happiness and that the second arrows were few in number. To the extent that one is still with you, my invitation is to identify its source – a belief, thought, or story about the unfairness or injustice of it. Is this belief serving you? Is it worth continuing to be right? Where did you engage in the very thing about which you are most angry or sad or frustrated? And from this place of freedom and responsibility, what new actions occur to you? Perhaps your family should have waited to cut the turkey. Maybe it was “wrong” for them to have broken such an important tradition. But these are all second arrows. Without them, what incredible joy and fulfillment there is to be had.
I have found no better technology to cultivate the habit of mind required to minimize the effects of the second arrow than meditation. A daily, guided meditation practice can be life-changing. There are many wonderful programs available. The one I recommend the most is Waking Up by Sam Harris.
The world lost a visionary leader this past weekend, the retired CEO of Zappos Tony Hsieh. If you haven’t read Tony’s book Delivering Happiness, I highly recommend it. It was one of the many books I devoured in my first stint as CEO, and it had a significant impact on my understanding of leadership and business.
My favorite quote from Tony Hsieh has been on my mind this week. “Just because you can’t measure the ROI of something doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. What’s the ROI of hugging your mom?”