The Story Economy Blog

Zombies and Other Tricky Thoughts

For the past few nights, my four-year-old has been freaking out at bedtime. “I’m thinking of that commercial again, mommy,” he’ll say. It was a creepy fright-night type commercial that ran during Jeopardy last week, advertising a Halloween event at the local amusement park. It showed people turning into zombies and monsters while riding a roller coaster. A better mother would have, you know, immediately changed the channel. But I admit, I wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention in that moment.

I tried the rational approach with him. “It’s all about money. Kings Island just wants us to come there and give them lots of money. It’s called marketing. It’s actually sorta what mommy does for a living, except I would never try to scare anyone because that’s mean.”

That didn’t work.

So then I tried to explain that it wasn’t real anyway. “It’s all made up. Special people called makeup artists painted people’s faces to make them look like zombies. But really, they’re just people. Most of them probably work as waiters and bartenders at restaurants.”

The sad face starred back at me, totally unconvinced. Tears. Big eyes. No-go on the rational ideas. Sigh. I was appealing to the wrong system.

“But it’s in my head, mommy. I need you to take it out,” he said.

Take it out? Oh, kiddo.

So we made a little show of it. I found just the right spot on his head and then grabbed the scary thought out. “Let’s throw it away,” I said. He nodded, excited. I made a motion of throwing it out the window, far, far away. We made explosion sound effects (he’s a boy: of course it had to blow up).

But the really, really important part, I told him, is adding better stuff. We swirled our hands in the air and named thoughts he wanted in his head instead: his stuffed animal Blue, a playdate with his little friend Anna, counting to 60, playing soccer, being Batman, getting golden eggs in Angry Birds, and doing cartwheels. Then I slowly dropped it all in his head, letting it run all gooey over his ears (he particularly liked that visual).

Did it work? As well as anything ever works with kids. Which is to say, he still whimpered a bit, but with much less force and emotion. And then he went to sleep.

You Can Only Add Better Stuff

Thoughts torment, and thoughts liberate. It’s pretty weird. And whether or not we’re actually in control of any of it is even weirder. Of course we are. Of course we’re not.

I’ve done my share of yanking out the thoughts I don’t want and trying to get them to blow up on impact. But still, they swirl, especially the I’m Not Good Enough ones: I’m charging too much money . . . Who do I think I am anyway? . . . I went to a state school and paid my own way through while I lived at home . . . I never worked at a big name agency . . . When will the A-list people notice me? . . . Aren’t I just a greedy American who is part of the problem? . . . I’ll never be able to really change how anyone thinks about anything . . .

And then there’s the worst one, the Big Predicament of Life one: If I live long enough, I will have to bury people I love.

It’s not that much different than zombies on a rollercoaster.

But there’s something my kid hasn’t quite grasped yet. Come to think of it, neither have a lot of grownups. And it’s this:you can’t will a thought to be gone once it’s there.

I don’t believe there is any logical process, template, 12-step program, or journal exercise in the world that can banish a thought. You can’t rationally decide when to stop believing it or letting it freak you out. You also can’t know when some scary thing will show up on your TV screen or in your life and deposit a bunch more thoughts you don’t want.

You can only add better stuff. One good thought at a time.

You have to add better stuff to your head, and then make it a thing. Start talking about those better thoughts you’ve added. Focus on them. Tell stories about them. Create things around them. Give the better thoughts more and more space, so they go and recruit even more of the better thoughts. (Let’s call this the direct sales model of good-thought-building.)

There is no template for getting rid of unwanted thoughts and no template for adding desirable ones. Don’t listen to the people promising it’s easy, or overnight. There is only focus. Back-breaking, un-pretty, un-marketable, hands-in-the-dirt focus.

I don’t know that I want to tell my four-year-old this yet. But you and I: we’re grownups. We’re in this. We know what zombies really are.

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