Last month, someone asked me how I got a tan on my face in the middle of the winter. So I explained. My 22-year-old daughter Hanna and I were at our mountain cabin during a snowstorm which dropped two feet of snow there in the Virginia Blue Ridge mountains. It was lovely and idyllic, especially as we sat by the wood stove reading and chatting.
The day after the snowstorm the sun came out, especially so on our upstairs south-facing deck. I wanted Hanna to see how warm that deck could be, even with mounds of snow and 30 degree weather. I went upstairs in my slippers and out onto the deck without putting on a coat. The sun was warm there although it was still below freezing. I called to my daughter, and she came out barefoot and pulled the door closed behind her.
I heard the door closing, but before I could get any words out, it clicked and locked. We were trapped on the second floor deck acres from any neighbors on a mountain in the snow. We had just two slippers between us and no coats. Thank goodness I was right – the deck was warm and sunny even in the cold.
I’ll be honest. My first response was toward blaming and shaming. “Why would you close the door all the way when going onto a deck?!” I asked in a louder-than-usual voice. “Well you and Dad have always insisted that we not let cold air into the house!” was her rebuttal. Clearly, blaming wasn’t going to get us inside the warm house (where the dogs were relaxing by the fire). We had no phones, no shoes, and no warm clothes. Hanna was in a t-shirt. We faced the mountain with the road down the mountain on the other side of the cabin, and no cars passed by anyway because of the snow. There was one thin edge of deck that wasn’t covered in snow. Rather than venting, we dumped the snow out of the two metal chairs and sat down to consider our situation.
For the next hour or so, we tried several techniques. First, I tried to climb down by hanging from the deck and reaching one leg for the flower boxes. After hitting ice under my slippers and almost falling, we decided that was a bad idea. We tried kicking the door individually and together, and even tried to use the chair legs to pry it open. We used both of our slightly different hair clips to try to pick the lock. No luck. Over and over we considered jumping down, but neither of us were brave enough to risk breaking a back or a leg. Even as we discussed it, the snow on the ground was melting, making jumping less safe.
We alternated between laughing about our predicament and getting serious about the fact that we would freeze if we didn’t get inside before nightfall. At one point I suggested that our situation was like the fairy tale Rapunzel, and we laughed about the fact that we wouldn’t have enough hair between us to climb down, even if a prince appeared.
Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama’s words kept coming back to me:
“IF A PROBLEM IS FIXABLE, IF A SITUATION IS SUCH THAT YOU CAN DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT, THEN THERE IS NO NEED TO WORRY. IF IT’S NOT FIXABLE, THEN THERE IS NO HELP IN WORRYING. THERE IS NO BENEFIT IN WORRYING WHATSOEVER.” – H.H. DALAI LAMA
Remembering this and practicing it kept us in a state of mind to be ready and open to any and all possible solutions. After more than an hour we heard a snow plow up on the mountain and we realized that there must be someone there plowing. So as soon as we heard the engine go off we started to call out. “Hello!” “Can you help us?!” etc. Eventually we got a response and our nearest neighbor, though he didn’t know what we were saying, braved the two feet of snow to hike up to our house. He was able to get into the house, come upstairs and free us from our second floor perch.
Of course it all turned out just fine, and I even got some sun on my face to show for it, but it could have been a lot worse. Yes, we could have frozen out there in the snow, but even if we hadn’t frozen, we could have chosen to make ourselves miserable the entire time. We could have shamed and blamed each other and ourselves, or gotten ourselves tied in mental knots. We didn’t deny the seriousness of the situation, but I also think we managed not to add any additional suffering to what was already happening.
Buddhists have a story about the second arrow of suffering. We regularly get shot with the arrows of difficulties in our life. Instead of pulling the arrow out, we shoot ourselves with a second arrow. The second arrow could be our anger about the situation, blaming ourselves or others, worrying or doubting, or even using addictions to distract ourselves. On the deck we mostly experienced the arrow as it was, without adding to it.
Roshi Bernie Glassman offers us three Peacemaker tenants. The first, Not Knowing and the second, Bearing Witness invariably lead to the third, Loving Action. Sure, it can be hard to admit we don’t know how, give up the drama of blaming and freaking out and sit in the middle of our difficulty. But maybe it’s worth it, even in this kind of relatively minor irritation.
After the rescue, Hanna and I were able to seamlessly go back to enjoying the snow and the fire without a lot of drama residue. We joked about it later, but it didn’t carry into our lives the way it might have if we had blamed each other or gotten ourselves worked up. We weren’t left with any anger between us, and we didn’t create any resentment or friction in our relationship. Having shot myself and others with the drama of the second arrow many many times, I am slowing seeing how much easier life can be if I simply experience the difficult situation as it is.