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.
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.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.