don't forget the blue goat

The most popular episode of the Mary Tyler Moore Show (and my favorite) was titled Chuckles Bites the Dust. The main character (Mary Richards played by Mary Tyler Moore) worked as a news producer for a TV station where one of the shows featured Chuckles the Clown.

Here's what happened: Chuckles was serving as grand marshal of a city parade when he was attacked and killed by an rogue elephant. A ridiculous way to die, wouldn't you say?

Throughout the episode, Mary complained about her colleagues making jokes at the poor man’s expense. She took his death seriously. Until the start of the Chuckle's funeral. Suddenly, everyone’s role reserved. The others became solemn and sober. But Mary couldn’t suppress her urge to giggle at the clown’s comedic demise. The scene is considered one of the most memorable in TV sitcom history. It was ranked #1 on TV Guide's 1997 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time. She kept laughing because she wasn't supposed to do so.

Ever tried NOT to laugh at church? The more you fight it, the stronger the urge becomes. Ever had a crazy thought pop in your head about disrupting a meeting? Ever wondered what would happen if you stood up in a restaurant and started yelling? Or started a food fight?  Have you had a crazy thought pop into your head about what it would be like if you jumped out of a window in front of you and fell ten stories?

Suppress that contrarian thought and it can become an outright urge. Suddenly, you are wondering if you can prevent yourself from doing something completely outrageous and inappropriate. The more you try to avoid the idea, the stronger the desire becomes to do it. Anyone who’s tried to quit smoking or stop drinking knows the feeling.

A paper in the Journal Science tries to explain the phenomenon. Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner says if you keep ruminating on the idea of something bad happening, it can actually make it more likely to occur.

Our brains are busy suppressing impulses all the time. We use a great deal of energy keep inclinations in check. The effort usually takes place without conscience thought. But when we focus intensely on avoiding errors and taboos, the impulse can be strengthened because the brain is conscience and locked into the event.

Just try not thinking of a blue goat.

In sports, a player may be told not to swing his bat or golf club a certain way. Soon, he can barely avoid doing it and feels obsessed and distracted. Especially under pressure.

Are you not thinking of a blue goat?

Once the idea has been consciously suggested to us, it’s hard to shake it until something new shoves it out of the way. Therein lies the key for moving away from unwanted thoughts. Instead of trying to keep them down, use your energy to put something else in its place.

Basketball players are more successful when they visualize the ball going through the hoop and the process that works to get it there. Rather than focusing on "not missing" they see greater success when they have a clear vision of  accomplishment. Even thoughts of suicide can be squeezed out by changing our focus from our own situation toward helping someone else.

Just don’t forget about the blue goat.

Stephen Goforth