I suspect your experience has been a lot like mine: You open Facebook to see what your BFF is up to. You want to see a cute meme about kittens or puppies. You look for that inspiring quote posted by the friend who always knows what to share during difficult times – and WAM! There it is! Your beloved aunt or friend – whose political leanings are not the same as yours – posts THAT unbelievable post that is filled not only with hate, but downright inaccurate information.
How do you feel? Anger? Disappointment? Do you have a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach?
If you are like me, even in the midst of my anger and disbelief, I do a fact check to see if this information is truly false or inaccurate. There it is! The conspiracy theory that has been making the rounds on the internet! Perhaps you resist the urge to write a self righteous response to help “enlighten” your friend or family member to the error of their ways. Or you might go down the proverbial rabbit trail with all of the arguments with which you might like to respond against the post? Do you compose a pithy and succinct response that would print well in The Atlantic, but then hit delete? Whether you respond or not to the post, before long, you notice that disappointment and anger has turned inward and you are feeling drained and down. Sound familiar?
What you have just experienced is reactivity. Reactivity happens in a split second from stimulus to thought. You see the post or read the newsfeed and the reaction happens. Anger. Disappointment. Disbelief. You might even notice that you feel the reaction in your body. Shoulders tighten. Breath come quicker. Hands ball into fists.
The Second Arrow
Experiencing the reactivity of the mind and body is natural. This is what is known in the mindfulness world as the “first arrow.” However, what happens next is what really causes us and others undo harm and suffering. This is known as the “second arrow.”
The metaphor of the two arrows goes like this: The first arrow is when anything unpleasant happens just because we are human. It is painful – physical or emotional. The first arrow is inevitable. Then comes the second arrow: It is the reaction that we have when we experience the initial pain – and it really doesn’t help the matter at all. It just makes things worse.
When our friend or relative posts or says something that we receive as painful, we experience that first arrow. When we react – we say or write something equally hurtful – we shoot the second arrow and just perpetuate the pain. While we cannot avoid the pain of the first arrow, with practice we can avoid the second arrow and respond differently.
The response that does not continue the pain cycle is empathy. Empathy is not condoning or ignoring the pain, but rather it is a chance to open our tightly clenched hearts and hands, to be with what is difficult in a responsive way. This is insight. How might I work with this painful moment? When we pause to reflect, our reactivity might just shift. To sadness. To disappointment. And, perhaps to compassion.
Empathy begins with inquiry: What can I learn from this? What has this triggered in me? And then as we look at our own woundedness, perhaps we can ask the questions: What need is my friend or family member expressing here? What really matters to them?
It Leads to Love
Ultimately, our inquiry opens our hearts, allows for ambiguity and helps us to end the internal and external need for having the last word. This is how love works. This is how compassion and empathy can change not only our reactivity, but the world.
In compassion and love,