It Is Always The Second Arrow, Stupid!

Image credit:

We all experience pains and pleasures, ups and downs in life as life is a journey through mountains and valleys. We experience these ups and downs to varying degrees, but we all have them. When we are on the mountain top, we commend ourselves and have a sense of achievement and pride. But, when we are in the valleys, life seems so unfair and we mourn the bad luck. Sometimes we are even getting hit from all directions at once. It seems that nature is unfair; society’s unfair; God (or, if you are an atheist, government) is unfair. Sometimes it’s a perfect storm. We just keep getting kicked while we’re down, and it seems like nobody really cares and nobody really wants to help.

In short, when we have good times or there is smooth sailing, we usually believe that we worked hard, made good decisions as we had freewill to improve our lives. But when we face some troubles, we choose to blame the fate and thus start crying and wailing that further aggravates the problem, instead of solving it.

Free will vs Determinism” is an old debate. Perhaps as old as human life itself. No subject seems to have been more debated in philosophy than this one. And the debate continues without any universal agreement. For centuries philosophers, scientists, psychologists, and theologian have been pondering over the question: “Are we able to make our own decisions freely, or are our actions predetermined by our genetics, our environment and how we have been conditioned to behave?”

The determinist approach proposes that all behavior has a cause and is thus predictable. Free will is an illusion, and our behavior is governed by internal or external forces over which we have no control. On the other hand, proponents of “Free Will” are of the view that our consciousness gives us the space to contemplate decisions and thus we have the free will to make choices. The belief in free will is an ancient one and is also fundamental to the concept of biblical original sin (which means that it was not serpent who misguided the Adam but Adam chose to disobey God in eating the forbidden fruit (of knowledge of good and evil) and, in consequence, transmitted his sin and guilt by heredity to his descendants.) Thus “free will” is, in the nutshell, the idea that people have the capacity to choose and control their own behaviour/actions (even if thy have inherited some bad traits from our ancestors?) And, although, science doesn’t still seem clear about the ultimate truth, many scientists are said to have increasingly assumed that our deeds must be determined by something. Sigmund Freud (Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis) also propounded the theory that our behavior is caused by events and relationships earlier in life, rather than our free will at any current moment.

However, some philosophers warn us not to confuse “Determinism” with “Fatalism.” According to them, Fatalism refers to the belief that whatever happens had to happen as a result of fate: whatever we choose to do or actually do is already determined by fate. By contrast, determinism allows for many causes; however, it does not permit the possibility that something happens as a result of no cause.

Regardless, a humanist approach in psychology sees a problem with determinism and that is that it is inconsistent with society’s ideas of responsibility and self control that form the basis of our moral and legal obligations. But some philosophers do not believe that free will is required for moral responsibility. According to John Martin Fischer (American philosopher and a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of California), human agents do not have free will, but they are still morally responsible for their choices and actions. In a nutshell, Fischer thinks that the kind of control needed for moral responsibility is weaker than the kind of control needed for free will.

Here enters the Buddhism with an effort to clear the confusion with its parable of “Two Arrows” that is mix of both views: We have no control on external happenings or events but we can control our reaction to what happens to us.

Below is a version of the parable:

Parable of the 2 arrows

“Once upon a time a man came to see Buddha. He seemed very depressed. Buddha asked him the reason. The man said, “O lord I am going through mental agony due to problems in my life. And I don’t know how to solve it. Situation is getting worse and worse.” The he pleaded Buddha, “Please suggest some way out so that I could come out of this morass of suffering, in addition to knowing why I suffer a lot and why it happens to me.”

Buddha listened to the man with patience and said,” Well tell me one thing, suppose you are walking through a forest. Suddenly someone fire an arrow at you. you are hit by an arrow which really hurts you. It is very painful and you feel that physical pain in your body. You remove that arrow from your body and try to relax but then suddenly a second arrow comes from somewhere and hit you at the same place in your body where first arrow hit you. Now tell me that do you think the second arrow will be even more painful than the first arrow. ?

Man said,“yes lord the second arrow will be more painful indeed. Its pain will be unbearable.”

The second arrow

The Buddha then explained, “In life we can not always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. And with this second arrow comes the possibility of choice.”

Thus imagine a bow with two arrows, one of which has already been released. This first arrow is a difficult life event, challenge or issue. It could be a death, end of a relationship, losing a job or conflict. The second arrow, which is in the bow — ready to be released — is your judgment, self-criticism and negative thoughts about the first arrow. It is self-blame, self-pity, shame, beating yourself up or sliding into a victim mindset which allows the inner critic to take over and run the show. When the second arrow is released it inevitably lands in the place of first wound. Then it deepens that wound, making it more painful and preventing the first wound from healing.

In a similar vein, The Dalai Lama said, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” Meaning: unforeseen events will occur in life and we must avoid adding judgement because it fuels our suffering. It requires accepting the cards life hands us and not falling victim to the pain and disappointments of life.

In Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet” there is also a similar lesson that one should not act in anger or under the influence of strong emotions. Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play and one of the most quoted lines of the play is: “To be or not to be, that is the question!" The main lesson learned is that revenge makes a person to act blindly as a result of anger. Such emotions cause a person to take actions without a rationale. The play has a theme of revenge or “an eye for an eye”. However, the moral of the story suggests that this principle does not have the support of intelligence or wisdom. In the play, the three characters Fortinbras, Laertes, and Hamlet looked to take revenge for their fathers’ death that was the first arrow. As a result, the three actors took irrational actions (shooting the second arrow) based on emotion, which caused the collapse of two, and success of another. This led to the death of two of the three sons, who swore to have revenge.

Thus as Epictetus has wisely said, “It is not what happens to you, but how you react to the happening that matters.”

Keep in your mind that Failure hits us all. Heartache hits us all. Problems… people we don’t want in our life, illness, disappointment … this is all a normal part of being human… what is extra-ordinary is that you must keep moving even if you are going through hell , as Churchill is believed to have said. MOVING FORWARD ANYWAY is the best you can do. Ultimately you will escape the suffering by accepting it and not by mourning or condemning it.

There is no escape route externally or through non-attention or non-awareness. Every escape is through insight, which brings total clarity.

I would like to end with following wonderful quote:

Image credit:

Kindly support

I am not eligible for “Medium Partnership Program” and need help to keep writing the meaningful stuff. I you want to, you can help me by buying my e-book the link of which is given below:

Thanks for the generosity.








Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Aizaz Baqir

I am a freelance writer and translator based in Multan, Pakistan having interests in reading, writing, travelling and social services.