Is There A Life Lesson In Zeno’s Paradox Of The Flying Arrow?

1arrowRecently, a dear cousin from Austria sent me a copy of a post from Pico Iyer’s contribution to the Happy Days blog on the New York Times. The post, as I see it, was about how often times in life, “less is more.”  Mr. Iyer did a nice job of relating this concept to his personal life. He described how he viewed his life when he was in the corporate world and compared it to a much simpler time while in Japan. I think his essay is worth reading and I encourage all to do so. Having stated that, my intent here is not to review or summarize his post, but to borrow an idea of his – the use of Zeno’s Arrow Paradox – and discuss how it could be used as a metaphor for better understanding our own lives.

First, let’s look at the arrow paradox. When an archer shoots an arrow, the arrow flies from the bow to the target. If we consider the flight of the arrow at any fixed time, such as a second after it left the bow, then for that instant the arrow is not moving. Consider that instant to be a “snapshot” of the arrow in flight. We, of course, could do this for any single instant. Therefore, motion is nothing more than a series of stillness! WHAT!!!! Viewing the arrow as always being still before it arrives at the target, means that from that point of view, it would never get there. It is always still. Is it? Hopefully, you can see the paradox.2arrow

I would like to use the paradox to illustrate how we often seem caught in the same scenario in our own life. Take, for example, getting and keeping a job. Many workers see themselves in a “dead-end” job with no hope of reaching the goal of _?__. You fill in the blank. Consider a relationship with a “significant other.” How many times have we observed or experienced a relationship where there was no progress, no excitement, no “newness” and it seemed that the goal of happiness could never be reached? How about happiness, in general? I have heard many people say to others, “I just want you to be happy.”  Or, “it’s OK, just so you’re happy.” But, when have we heard a person say, “At this moment I have reached my goal of being happy?” The person’s “arrow” of striving for happiness has reached it’s target and now there’s nowhere else for the arrow to fly. Really, you see, the flight of the arrow is the most important part of this metaphor, not the target. It’s the pursuit of happiness, not the attainment of happiness. It’s the journey, not the destination.

So, what is the lesson in Zeno’s Paradox of the flying arrow? I think it’s in the flight of the arrow and how we, as humans, view life. We see our life in snapshots of moments. We enjoy and suffer in snapshots of time. We live our life in snapshots of time. The only target we ever will hit is our mortality. It’s not about the target, it’s all about the flight of the arrow!3arrow

How about “shooting off” a comment? :-)


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