In her mind, this is just how life is; there’s no reason to believe anything will go smoothly. As she was growing up, her family moved around a lot, and she learned quickly to adapt and make the best of each new situation. When her own daughter was born, Vivian wanted to make things more stable for her. She even passed up an opportunity or two because it would have meant uprooting her family, and she wanted Alicia to have more consistency than she’d had.
But now she wondered—had she given Alicia the impression that the world could be controlled, predicted, made to fit your plans and expectations? In washing away some of the difficulties she faced, had she failed to set her daughter up for the way life actually unfolded? Vivian expected detours and construction; Alicia expected straight routes, green lights, and smooth sailing.
Vivian is a friend—not a study participant. I’ve never pulled her into the lab to draw her blood, review her stress surveys, or peer into her cells. But if I did, and if I compared them with her daughter’s, I wonder what I would see. It’s possible that as Vivian and Alicia move along through the years, their calendar age staying stable at 32 years apart, their biological age is actually closing the gap. Vivian, who rolls with the kicks and punches her days throw at her, doesn’t seem to mount a stress response when faced with an unexpected detour.
Alicia has a completely different physiological response to that road-closed sign. Her sympathetic nervous system whooshes into action, ready to fight this threat. And if that’s happening a lot—all day, every day—that’s not good.
When things go awry, we tend to react with a stress response. In Buddhism, this is thought of as the second arrow problem: Anytime something bad happens, it’s like we’re being hit by two arrows. The first arrow is the painful thing that happened; the second is our reaction to that bad thing. In other words, problems (the first arrow) are inevitable, but suffering (the second arrow) is optional. The events will happen. The first arrows fall on everyone. But if we suffer about the suffering, we are throwing a second arrow at ourselves, and it’s always a double hitter.
For Alicia, this was in part because of a “violation of expectations.” Alicia thought, Why me? Vivian had a different response: Why not me?