Music and Talking to Myself

A counselor once told me that A + B = C, where A is what happens, B is what you tell yourself, and C is your emotion(s). From C comes D, which is your action(s)/response. This is a gross oversimplification, of course. Physiology, for example, plays a role (sometimes a large role) in this process. But for most people most of the time, the physiological (and other) effects are slight.

You can’t much affect A. A is what happens to you, the situations you find yourself in. Sure, you chose to take this flight or walk into that office, but you didn’t choose the thunderstorm at 5 o’clock or the traffic accident on your route home or your aunt passing away.

A lot of people, looking at their emotions, their C, think that C is nearly equal to A, so they repeat A‘s that lead to C‘s they like and avoid A‘s that lead to C‘s they don’t like. They like laughing with this person, so they go to their office to chat more often. They don’t like feeling embarrassed running to their car in the rain, so they make sure they keep an umbrella at work.

Of course, when you view A=C, or A being almost equal to C, people can resort to significant changes to try to eliminate C‘s they don’t like. For instance, they don’t like feeling anxious, so they try not to fly. They don’t like grieving and feeling helpless, so they distance themselves from elderly family members.

Sometimes people don’t mind the C‘s, but they loathe the resulting D‘s. For example, they don’t like feeling angry in the car because it prompted them to curse in front of their kids. They decide to change the A by taking a longer, slower, but less-busy way to and from work to try to avoid the C that led to the bad D.

But, there is also the B. Studies show that we can talk to ourselves an average of 1300 words a minute. That’s a lot of talking. You talk to yourself more than anyone else in your life does. (No, don’t make a crack about your spouse or sister or whatever. It’s not the same.) You talk to you a lot, so it stands to reason that it matters what you’re saying. If it makes you feel better to think of your B as being your thought process, that also works.

Which leads me to music. Music, studies show, can literally change your brain waves. We talk about not liking what a song says, but it’s so peppy or interesting that you find yourself listening and even humming along. If you’re like me, song lyrics and musical phrases regularly get “stuck”, repeating again and again in your mind. And those repetitions can easily come up when I’m talking to myself. Even just singing along to the songs stuck in my head is me repeating those words and messages to myself.

My great-aunt passed away at the end of 2014. After weeks in the hospital recovering from a broken hip, she’d been moved to an outpatient rehabilitation center and, it seems, a blood clot moved to her lungs and she died between three and five in the morning. My cousin called to tell me a few hours later, while I was scraping the ice off the windshield of my idling car.

I didn’t know what to do. So, after a minute or two, I started driving to work. I called and told my parents. And, about two miles from my house, I began to cry. While yielding at a busy intersection, my brain drew up the lyrics to David Crowder’s “All This Glory”. Not all of it, just these lines:

In the middle of the night,
all this light.
In the middle of the night,
after all this quiet.
Jesus, God with us.

I couldn’t remember any more. I couldn’t focus to try. I didn’t know what to say to myself about what had happened. I wanted to extrapolate, find meaning. So as I imagined my aunt lying in the bed in her darkened, borrowed room, exactly as I had left her mere hours before, my brain called up the lyrics to a song I hadn’t heard lately but I had listened to and sung often.

Singing these lines to myself, I realized that my great-aunt had passed through the veil of this life and into the very presence of God.

In the middle of the night,
all this light.
In the middle of the night,
after all this quiet.
Jesus, God with us.

And these words comforted me. That’s a good C.

The lyrics gave me perspective, which was a good D.

The A was bad, and I know how drastically I’m oversimplifying, but a helpful B led to a helpful C. Notice I didn’t say a “good” or “positive” B, because grief needs to be experienced but there is little good or positive about it. It’s pain. Pain like a current. And just when you feel you’ve got your footing, or you can handle this, it rushes with new fury.

Here’s the crux. Deciding what songs I should listen to matters. I’m putting language, messages into my brain and my brain only puts out what I put into it. That’s another gem from counseling: I put in, I get out.

A happens. (I often can’t control A.)
I think B. (I can learn to control B.)
I get C.
Based on C and my moral principles, I do D.

This doesn’t mean that I’m only going to listen to contemporary Christian music. (Have you heard some the nonsense in that category?) I’m not going to categorically cut out anything, either. But I am going to acknowledge that Bruno Mars’s “Locked Out of Heaven” isn’t what I want to be repeating to myself and Christina Perri’s “I Believe” probably is.

I don’t want Bieber’s “Love Yourself” or Hinder’s “Lips of an Angel” influencing my B thought processes, but I am good with “Love Song” by Sara Bareilles and Lukas Graham’s “Seven Years.”

“Photograph” by Ed Sheeran is a yes but his “Don’t” is a no.

And let’s not leave the Christians out: I don’t want “Above All” by Michael W. Smith and “God’s Great Dance Floor” by Chris Tomlin coming in or out of my head, but “Run Forward” by Audrey Assad and “Instrument” by Matt Maher are a-okay by me.

These are, of course, very personal choices. But they are choices, and I’m owning mine.

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