How to Dream a Better Dream Than This Nightmare We’re Living In

Have you been feeling a little more afraid than usual? You know, just a little more…uneasy? I have. So have many people I know. I couldn’t make any sense of it, though, until I started having a recurring nightmare…

black and white thinking

Photo Credit: Bigstock (John Kershner)

I haven’t had a recurring nightmare since childhood.

Until three months ago.

It begins with me standing in our kitchen, looking out upon our front yard. Then, suddenly, a large black-and-white conversion van comes barreling recklessly up our driveway toward the house. It narrowly misses the kitchen and passes out of sight, presumably to crash directly into the office next to the kitchen. I cringe and wait for the explosion.

But I hear only silence.

I peer around the corner into the study and, magically, the black-and-white van is sitting in the middle of our house. There is no one in it. It’s hazard lights are blinking ominously. Everything is dead silent. I approach the black-and-white van and, with trepidation, throw open its two rear doors. It is empty with the exception of a large box. Somehow, I know there is an old VHS tape in the box.

Somehow, I know the contents of the tape will be terrifying.

The nightmare dissolves at this point, and then resumes with me watching the tape on an old television screen. The images on the tape are like the most horrifying horror movie ever made. Death. Destruction and pain. Tragedy to the nth degree. And intermingled with all of it, a terrifying foreboding.

I always wake up at this point.

I avoided thinking about the nightmare for months. However, like all recurring dreams, until you get the message, it is unlikely to go away. So, I spent an hour fully immersing myself in the imagery of the nightmare. When I did so, the tragic images from the videotape receded and two other images from the nightmare became more prominent.

The first was the image of the tape itself, sitting in the black-and-white van.

As I meditated upon the image of the tape, a phrase kept coming to mind: “The tapes we play in our head.” Suddenly, I knew with relative certainty the tape represented my mental thought patterns—all the habitual narratives and stories I tell myself about myself, about other people, and about the world. My nightmare was telling me I’d been rehearsing some pretty crummy narratives about life. Then I realized: the images on that television screen weren’t of a horror movie; they were of the news channels.

My nightmare was telling me it’s time to turn off the news. 

My nightmare was telling me that the news is running only images of horror and destruction, death and tragedy, and that they are fomenting my—our—fear. Because the mental tapes we play over and over become our reality, regardless of what is really happening in the world. I’ve been watching too much news, and my mental world is being filled with the fear of it, while in the meantime, the good news is written all over the actual world, and I’m missing out.

The reality is, the world is also filled with beauty and wonder and joy and love and kindness and grace and charity and compassion.

The second prominent image was the black-and-white van barreling up the driveway. Black-and-white, I thought, black-and-white. Why were these words so important in the nightmare? Because horrifying mental tapes are usually delivered by black-and-white thinking.

Black-and-white thinking is a dualistic way of looking at the world. Either-or. This or that. Good or bad. Them or us. In times of fear, black-and-white thinking feels safe, because it is a mental shortcut—a quick and simple way of responding—and thus it feels more certain, more secure.

However, black-and-white thinking also produces many of the horrors that populate our mental tapes.

Dualistic thinking makes it easier to oversimplify, judge, condemn, attack, abuse, and annihilate anything or anyone. Black-and-white thinking makes our actions reactive. Thoughtless. Dangerous. In the end, rather than creating safety, it just creates more bad news—more judgment, more horror, more atrocities.

Fear is leading to black-and-white thinking is leading to more fear. And so on.

So, I decided to put an end to my nightmares by daydreaming instead. What I mean is, I decided the meditation of my waking hours will be upon catching myself when I slip into black-and-white thinking. I decided instead I’m going to look for gray. For complexity. For nuance. And for the truth, beauty, gentleness and compassion that can be found only there.

I haven’t had the nightmare since.

What fears trigger your black-and-white thinking? And what new horrors, either subtle or pronounced, result from your either-or way of seeing things? What will you have to eliminate from your life in order to eliminate black-and-white thinking from your mind? Whatever it is, be ruthless about it. Get free of it.

Then maybe, just maybe, you’ll be free to dream a better dream, too.

Question:What good news have you experienced recently? If you’re so inclined, share it here, so we can all hear the rest of the story. You can leave a comment by clicking here.


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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

14 thoughts on “How to Dream a Better Dream Than This Nightmare We’re Living In

  1. Once again, such a timely post for me. My husband and I are facing some big decisions, and we’ve been mulling over and praying about the options for months. But reading this post has made me realize that we’ve been coming at all parts of the decision from a black and white perspective. I need to think more in the gray. And I need to dream about all the good that could come of these decisions instead of focusing on the bad. Thank you.
    And for a good story: a neighbour of mine had twins prematurely during the summer. She’s home now with them and our neighbourhood has come together to help her and her husband out as they adjust to parenting two babies. It’s so beautiful to be able to share in this new family and help them.

  2. Good news? We just adopted a new rescue dog named George who is amazing. Found him by “accident” just came upon an adoption site and there he was! My daughter is doing an amazing job in school. I love my husband and he is my best friend, the one I want to be with whenever I have one moment of free time. I just had my physical this week and am fit as a fiddle. We have the means to buy healthy food, live in a cozy home and have some fun too! I have an abundance of people who I give and receive love from…… Thank you for this invitation! The affirmation of life! <3 Thank God for non-duality and thank you for this important, timely reminder!

  3. I need to read ur new book now…bern dealing w thoughts that need to be replaced with lovable tapes…let me know if I can review ur new book sooner than March, 2017.
    Thank u for ur ministry here for hearts that need healing.

  4. I really appreciate this article. I don’t watch the news, I read about all the crimes in New Orleans. I also am a woman over 65 years of age and so are my friends. In the last year I have had 6 of my friends assaulted and robbed personally while in their cars. One of friends in her 70’s was car hijacked. They actually threw her out of her car, down on the ground and stole her car, purse and jewelry. Last week and elderly woman leaving a donut shop was assaulted, thrown to the grown for the $30 in wallet. The fall caused her to break her hip and is now in the hospital. I have been living in fear, afraid to go out of my house. I feel extremely vulnerable because of my age. Every time I have to leave my house I run a “tape” in my head of the all horrible things that could happen to me. I tense myself up just to go to the grocery store. It is horrible. I have never been assaulted but I live this way now vicariously because of what happened to my friends and by what I “read” in the news. I am TIRED of it. I am TIRED of living in fear. I was the person who always loved the world and trusted the world and thought the world was beautiful. I need to find a happy balance. I need to create new “tapes” in my head about being safe and that not everyone in the world is bad or is going to harm me. Thank you for your article. I really enjoy reading them. I have them come into my gmail. I woke up to this one this morning. I am going to start today to change “my tapes” and not live in fear. I don’t think it will be easy to reverse but I am going to do it and start today.

  5. Good news. . . I love my family and they love me! I receive your post every Wednesday and am moved by your wisdom. My granddaughter is adjusting well to her new home and to kindergarten. The list goes on and on!! I’m so grateful for your posts as they always teach me something I can use to improve my experience in life. Thanks for writing for us!!

  6. The good news of waking up and realizing that I no longer am operating in the victim mode but am actually enjoying life without the perks victimhood brings.
    The good news of being asked to write devotionals for a prison ministry after someone read something I wrote and was very moved by it.
    The good news of trusting people again and being part of a community
    I haven’t watched the news in over 6 months and don’t miss it. There is still positives in the world that we need to find and freeing the mind of the negatives makes room for them
    Good news of being part of this group of people that you, brought to together to journey this life with. Thank you.

  7. I love this post too Kelly. I unconsciously decided some time ago not to read the news, and while I follow some groups in Facebook related to “Global News” (like The Elders) and I worried about the war in Syria and the refugees crisis and separation in EU after Brexitt, etc, I read this information from this group, that tends to create some citizenship and reflection and create a response within an ethical frame of reference. I think we lost the helm on what news should serve for: violence creates more violence and kindness creates more kindness… so depending on what we are offered, we then react.
    My country has received immigrants a century ago, and we know how these people came, which were their stories, running away from war, violence, holocaust… so it is not that the world is worse nowadays and we should be more careful now than before… but as we now have access to all the horror in the world in any possible way, we can then consume it 24/7 for free.
    What I do to see the positive? I just look around and I try to be kind, and use nice words, and compliment the shirt of my work colleague or buy chocolates for the afternoon coffee if we have had a hard day at work, and I say thank you and please a lot. I read books that opens up my heart and my soul, look for like-minded people, and have engaged with adventures that have ended showing me that the world is a beautiful place full of beautiful people too.
    I listened to Bessel van der Kolk -a specialist in PTSD- said this: ” I’m not sure if I share that view that the world nowadays is more dangerous than before. I think there’s so much
    more news, so we’re much more aware of whatever happens at any
    particular moment. And of course, the news media, when you wake up in
    the morning, find the worst thing that happens somewhere in the world to
    serve it to you for breakfast. So we get served much more. I don’t
    think there’s more trauma actually.”
    Thank you again 🙂
    PS: I also read your blog and feel part of this tribe 🙂

  8. My good news is that I have been invited to start leading children’s yoga and mindfulness classes for 5th graders in a public school in the Mississippi Delta. In this area, it would be so easy to only see the lack, the hard, and the mean but there is joy, hope, and healing for those who choose to notice.

  9. Excellent post. I don’t believe that 24/7 “news” is healthy but it is very big business now so it is up to us to limit our consumption. Also, I have found that taking action changes how I feel, not the other way around. In other words, one step on the path leads to more steps. If I sit home worrying, I just have more worry. I was happy to recently discover a group that is helping refugees in my community and I plan to take some of my family’s excess to them. They need the most basic things, like blankets.

  10. Wonderful post again, Kelly, and one so very much needed! I haven’t watched the news for years and I have felt so much better for it. I get my news online where I can control how much of it I get.

    –For good news, my husband and I decided to give it another try after we were split up for four months and things so far have been really good. We are more open and he is much more open to listen to me and my points of view.
    –Tomorrow, October 6th is my birthday and my work colleagues and I are going out for lunch and my husband and I are going out to eat on Friday to celebrate. 🙂
    –Yesterday was the feast of St. Francis of Assisi and we blessed our two dogs and doves at home, something we’d never done before.
    –I have lots of loving family and friends who are special to me and love me back.
    –I have found more wonderful audio books to listen to that are helping me to be more and more authentic, vulnerable (not a bad word!), compassionate and real with myself and others. Am looking forward to hearing your audio book too!
    –Am part of this wonderful blog community where I am inspired weekly by your great wisdom and compassion. Thank you so much!!!

  11. Hi all! I’d love to reply to you each as I usually do, but today the kids are off school and I don’t have the time I normally do. I’ve read and appreciate each and every comment, though. I woke up this morning to this passage from “The Alphabet of Grace” by Frederick Buechner: “The alphabet of grace is full of sibilants–sounds that can’t be shouted but only whispered: the sounds of bumblebees and wind and lovers in the dark, of whitecaps hissing up flat over the glittering sand and cars on wet roads, of crowds hushed in vast and vaulted places, the sound of your own breathing. I believe that in sibilants life is trying to tell us something. The trees, ghosts, dreams, faces, the waking up and eating and working of life, are trying to tell us something, to take us somewhere.” May we listen closely this week for the abundance of sibilants beneath the cacophony of the bad news.

  12. I forgot to mention that I stopped watching the news too. At my leisure in my time, when I can emotionally afford to, I read NPR news on line.

    And the good news…everything.else.😊

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