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We are haunted, but not by ghosts

I dreamed of my dead son last night. It was either the first time since his death 41 days ago or the first time I remember the dream. I don’t usually remember my dreams, so I attribute some significance to the fact that I remember some of this one.

In the dream, my wife and I had his body with us at a hair dresser. His corpse lay in a chair at the wash basin, and a woman (who in real life is a banker) was washing his hair. We were discussing how to go about preserving his body until the funeral on March 20 (we actually had a memorial service on Jan. 12 with no body present, since he had been cremated). I remember that I had to pick him up and carry him after the hair washing, and wear a bandanna over my mouth and nose to keep from inhaling particles of decomposition or ash (not clear which).

I can understand why people believe in ghosts, and I make no declaration one way or the other as to their reality. It reminds me of a teacher I once had in graduate school. Students would get drawn into philosophical arguments about whether you could know for certain that there was such a thing as objective reality (the “brain in a vat” argument, more recently updated to the idea that we may live in a Matrix). After letting the arguments run for awhile, he would interrupt with the observation that “It doesn’t matter — reality behaves as if it is out there.”

I have felt his presence several times, and last night felt the weight of his body as surely as I feel the chair I’m sitting in now. It doesn’t matter whether it actually happened. I felt it so clearly that it brings tears to me right now.

What happens in your head determines your experience

Have you ever remembered an embarrassing experience so clearly that you feel embarrassment all over again? Have you ever replayed an argument in your mind so clearly that you shake with anger all over again?

“It doesn’t matter — reality behaves as if it is out there.”

If you can’t get such memories out of your head, you are haunted by a ghost as surely as any Ebenezer Scrooge.

Such hauntings are not necessarily bad. I never want to lose the sense of my son’s presence. Nevertheless, remember: it only feels real because of how vividly you experience it. If you have something not serving you that keeps haunting you, you may not have the ability to just turn it off, but you don’t have to feed it.

Please don’t feed the ghosts

Note: ruminating about an old ghost certainly feeds it. So does trying to push it away. Any sort of attention feeds it.

Here’s a practical example: my students often wrestle with stage fright. They try to get rid of it by telling themselves not to be scared. But if you constantly tell yourself, “Don’t be scared, don’t be scared, don’t be scared,” you focus on being scared. What you focus on, you get more of.

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So I tell them to think of stage fright as like a puppy. If you want to get a puppy to go away, you certainly don’t achieve that by hugging it to yourself. Neither, however, do you get rid of it by pushing it away. That just makes the puppy come back. Any attention at all encourages the puppy. If you want the puppy to go away you might acknowledge it but other go about your business, ignoring its attempts to grab your attention. After awhile it will get bored and go elsewhere.

So it is with your ghosts. I don’t mean pretend they’re not there — I think that might be the ghostly equivalent of pushing away. Acknowledge it, and then focus on something else, maybe nodding at the ghost every so often. They may not go away altogether, but they will fade into the background, and mostly stopped rattling their chains.


Don’t ask me to interpret your dreams, though. I’m still trying to figure out the significance of March 20 in mine.


About the writer

Donn King helps you communicate confidently. He writes a lot, too, a habit he hasn’t been able to break for nearly 50 years. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.