There is a Buddhist parable known as the “second arrow.” If your are struck by an arrow, acknowledge and treat it, but do no allow yourself to be struck by a second arrow–the troubling thoughts and options about your pain–as this only causes further unnecessary pain.
I keep looking forward to my future self. What would she tell me? What might she request? Am I doing enough to reach a conclusive diagnosis? Am I pushing myself too far, at the cost of long-term health?
This dialogue with my future self is the reason I’m sleeping 12 to 16 hours a day. It’s the reason I’m seeing fourteen specialists, including five infectious disease doctors, two pulmonologists, a neurologist, a sleep specialist, and an endocrinologist. It’s the reason I’m scouring PubMed and NIH for research articles; the reason I’m openly talking about the symptoms I was previously humiliated to share; and the reason I’m stepping up my healthy eating habits to a new level. It’s the reason I’m dutifully undergoing treatment that’s causing my hair to fall out; the reason I’m saying “no” to nearly everything; and the reason I feel inclined to share my experience.
I want to help her. Remarkably, she also wants to help me.
Over the weekend, I wondered out loud whether this is all in my head, if I’m somehow making myself sick. My boyfriend quipped back, “Up until earlier this year, you thought it was all in my head!” Touché.
I have been suffering from chronic fatigue and pain consistently for the last ten months, and periodically for several years proceeding that, though I ruthlessly denied it. Reality finally began to set in around in March of 2018 when my legs began giving out during simple body weight exercises. In the four months prior, I’d gone from being able to lift 75% of my body weight to struggling though body weight squats and lunges. My muscles were suddenly fatiguing way too quickly, and I was intent on getting to the bottom of it.
Here I am, seven months later, closer to the answer I was originally seeking, but not yet satisfied. And I am slowly coming to realize that perhaps I’ve allowed myself, unwittingly, to be struck by that second arrow.
Pain is neither unendurable nor unending, as long as you remember its limits and do not exaggerate it in your imagination. — Epicurus
In my case, if I can do something to ease my ailment, I will. This includes medication, diagnostic tests, physical therapy, meditation, diet changes, and whatever else just might help. These remedies are within my control.
It is taking some effort, but I am trying not to add to it psychological distress by feeling sorry for myself or allowing the pain to sap the joy from my life. In hypothetical interviews with my future self, this voluntary pain is the real sucker-punch. “Don’t give in,” she reminds me, ” and stay strong.”
Thanks to something called present bias, the person you are today has the tendency to look at your future self as a complete and total stranger. Truth be told, we typically don’t treat strangers as kindly as we could. Present bias leads us towards instant gratification, detaching future outcomes from the choices made today. Most people procrastinate setting up a retirement account, losing the extra weight, and prioritizing relationships in favor of daily hits of dopamine.
I hate to break it to you, but your broke, sick, and lonely future self isn’t going to thank you for that.
If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment. — Marcus Aurelius
Quite simply, just because you feel something physically does not mean you need to let it infect your mind. Physical pain, fatigue, hunger, heat, cold, and other uncomfortable or unpleasant feelings should be separate from your rational mind and spirit. The physical sensations, however difficult, can be endured, so we mustn’t make mountains out of molehills.
Throughout my life, I have found it helpful to connect with my future self by picturing that person and the life they hope to live. Putting myself in the shoes of my ideal future self has a profound impact on my behavior in the present. Future me want to retire early and buy land in the country, so I invest 20% of my income today. Future me hopes for a rational and wise approach to living, so today I make efforts to learn and apply valuable lessons. Future me wants to live a long and healthy life, so I eat well, exercise often, and support longevity research. You get the idea.
For years, my present self and my future self have been best friends, graciously supporting one another. However, lately I am questioning whether I am doing everything in my power to love and protect my future self. Are my occasional slips into sadness and self-pity chipping away at my resilience? Are my attempts to push my body just a tad bit further each day actually causing harm?
These are questions that the back-and-forth dialogue has yet to resolve. “Do what feels good, dear,” my future self assures me. And yet, even the slightest physical endeavor–lifting a ceramic plate into its cabinet, walking to the mailbox, breathing into the spirometer–feels simply exhausting. And in my head, she tells me, “Find what feels good. Be gentle with yourself. Be kind to yourself, and to me”
Of course, this isn’t to say that you shouldn’t address things that bring you discomfort. You don’t need to grin and bear pain as an act of strength. Do all that you can to alleviate the adversity, and then let go of anything beyond your control. It all comes down to self-awareness.
I don’t know about you but, in especially tremulous times, I often need a firm reminder that whining, complaining, and snapping at others does not benefit anyone. When you forget your friend’s birthday, you don’t need to chastise yourself for being a terrible person. When you feel tired or hungry, there is no point to being grouchy with the people you care about. And when you feel cold, there is no use in grumbling about it endlessly. Say that you’re sorry, grab a snack, and go put on a damn jacket. Take charge of those things that are within your control, and release your need to control those that are beyond it.
The obstacle in the path becomes the path. Never forget, within every obstacle is an opportunity to improve our condition. ― Ryan Holiday
In life, we will all face adversity in one form or another. When you do, I hope that you will remember to be strong, learn to endure, and let your rational mind stay in charge. Consider your future self. What can you do today to show him or her the love and support they need to thrive? What can you do to avoid that deadly second arrow–the psychological suffering that often follows the physical distress?