This is an adapted excerpt from A Chance of Awesome: How Changing the Way You See Changes Everything, which is currently available as a free download. I made a few tweaks here to fit our current situation, and it goes quite nicely with the recent Coffee with Kim & Jason episode on faith.
When you were a child, were you ever afraid of the dark? I sure was. From horns and hair to scabs and skeletons, thinking about what lurked among the shadows was an all-you-can-eat buffet for my imagination.
I might not have made it through childhood without that humble but powerful life-saving device known as the night light. Although small in size and wattage, it did a remarkable job of keeping the creepy-crawlies at bay. Without it, I’m sure I’d have been digested in the belly of a slimy beast from the netherworld known as Underthebed.
Many lives have been saved by the simple night light. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been needed if we’d only believed our parents when they told us that there aren’t any monsters under the bed; they’re only in our imaginations. But alas, parents are never very convincing.
Perhaps that is because grownups also deal with monsters. They just live in a different place. You see, as we get older, the monsters move out from under our beds and move up, into our heads.
Think I’m nuts?
During this crisis, how many terrible things have you considered? What anxious thoughts have you entertained? These fears keep us up at night, and they can wreak some terrifying results.
Our parents were on to something when they tucked us into bed and tried to calm our fears about the monsters. Specifically, the part where they told us that the monsters exist only in our imaginations.
Think back to when you were five years old. Maybe you had a window in your bedroom. And maybe just outside that window was a tree. By day, that tree looked like an ordinary tree. Harmless. Almost friendly, even.
But at night, that tree cast some weird shadows into your room. Right before your eyes, it somehow transformed into an enormous, ravenous T-Rex, with dagger teeth and jagged claws, ever reaching in your direction. Ominously, it eyed you, tucked into your sheets and blankets and looking a lot like a ravioli-shaped midnight snack.
Looking back with the advantage of years and wisdom, you know there was no T-Rex lurking outside your bedroom window. It was just that tree, casting shadows that made your imagination run wild, concocting spine-chilling possibilities that you couldn’t help but believe.
Our imaginations are quite good at what they do.
Those pictures of you, penniless, living in a van down by the river eating Spam out of a can have been quite convincing, haven’t they? The images of people rioting in the streets, hospitals overflowing with death, and a zombie-like apocalypse have become quite vivid indeed.
Here’s the thing: No matter how creative we think we are (or aren’t), our imaginations don’t shut off just because we’re adults now. The stuff that keeps us up at night now is still largely the product of an overactive imagination.
That’s not true, I hear you saying. The stuff I’m worried about is real-world stuff. Things like my job and my mortgage and my kids.
Okay, I hear you. But now hear this: Most of the stuff we worry about never happens.
I’ll say it again: Most of the stuff we worry about never happens.
Don’t misunderstand me. What we’re all experiencing right now isn’t great. We are facing real challenges and people are experiencing real pain. But think back over the last year – not just the last few weeks – and call to mind all of the things you spent time worrying about. I’ll bet you that most of that stuff didn’t amount to anything at all. And the less-than-ideal instances that did come to pass were nowhere near as frightening as your imagination led you to believe.
Our biggest problem right now is uncertainty. How bad is this? How long will it last? How will it affect our economy?
Uncertainty breeds fear.
And fear is often the product of our imagination turned against us. Just as they did with the ominous shadows slithering across our bedroom floors, our imaginations take kernels of doubt and the vast unknown and concoct possible future outcomes. Outcomes that more times than not give us the heebie-jeebies.
So, what’s a person supposed to do about this?
Here’s what I am proposing: First, let us acknowledge that the stuff that contributes to our uncertainty and anxiousness is largely attributable to our imaginations. Once we can accept that, let’s put our imaginations to work for us, instead of against us.
If you are wracked with fear over a particular issue, be it large or small, begin by letting your imagination do what it wants to do anyway: go negative. That’s right; pull out a sheet of paper and write down the absolute worst possible outcome you can imagine. This should come quite easily, as it is the thing that’s been stealing your peace of mind for so long. Don’t leave out any gory details, including instantaneous death by coronavirus or a new career as a bum or a bag lady.
Now, once you are scared senseless and ready to pee your pants, take out another sheet of paper and write down the best possible outcome you can dream up. It may take a while for your imagination to kick into high gear, but when it does, reach for the sky. We’re talking fantasy land, pie-in-the-sky, Hollywood-couldn’t-write-it-because-it’s-too-unbelievable type of craziness. Have fun with it.
Okay, now that you’ve balanced things out a bit, take out a third (and final) sheet of paper and write down what you imagine to be the likely outcome of your particular scenario. This will probably fall somewhere in between the first two outcomes. It might be a bit uncomfortable or unpleasant, but it will be nowhere near as terrifying as you first suspected. (Spoiler alert: We will beat this virus, and we will get through this.)
When you fall asleep at night, steer your imagination toward the good things you are looking forward to when this thing is all over: Eating at your favorite restaurant and leaving a ginormous tip, attending a concert and singing in unison with thousands of people to your favorite song, hugging a random stranger on the street, seeing full shelves of toilet paper at the local grocery store…
This activity is a simple one, but if you give it a shot, it won’t be long before a sense of peace starts to descend upon you. Writing out the scary stuff that’s in your head is like shining a light on the situation. It clarifies the facts—that tree really is just a tree—and helps us to see just how ridiculous our initial assessment of the situation was.
A T-Rex?! Phfffft. Those went extinct a million years ago!
The monsters that terrorized you years ago have much in common with the ones that kept you up last night.
When our bedroom is flooded with sunlight, there are no monsters to be found. That’s how it is in life. With a strong faith to light the way, our fears and worries melt away. But as night falls, or our faith wavers, we are more easily frightened by the distorted shadows of our imaginations.
The night light is a symbol of faith.
May we be ever mindful that there IS someone bigger than the questions, bigger than the monsters that keep us up at night. May we remember that we have a hand to hold through all the scariness that life dishes out. And, in the darkest of nights, may we always count on that simple childlike faith to light our paths, keeping the monsters at bay better than any night light ever could.
Remember It feels darkest just before the dawn. Dawn is coming, friend.
Until then, have faith. And practice using your imagination as a tool that guides you to a peaceful present and illuminates a future filled with joy.