“Those Aren’t the Right Words”


One of my sons, Clay, who is 13, knows every word to every song that he’s ever heard. It’s honestly quite amazing. He only needs to hear a song once, and he will have the lyrics locked away in his brain forever. Clay is a human jukebox. On the other hand, my youngest son, Alex, who is 10, does not know the lyrics to many songs and so proceeds to make them up. Often, his lyrics contain words that do not appear anywhere in the actual song. 

Recently, Alex adapted the lyrics of a new, popular song called “Unholy.” When the chorus soars, he belts out, “It’s the opposite, it’s the opposite. Unholy.” If you know the song, you know that’s not what it says. At all. When I realized that I didn’t really want Alex to understand the meaning of that song, I told the family to just let him sing it the way he wants. And the funny part is when I hear the song, I often end up using Alex’s words too. But Alex’s general tendency to substitute his own lyrics seems to bug Clay. He regularly says, “those aren’t the right words” with an edge to his voice.  

We’ve all heard it said that all of us have a soundtrack for our lives. For example, songs from the mid-1990s usually transport me to fun dorm life with my besties. To this day, we text when we hear a throwback song on the radio. Sometimes though a song can trigger my memories of being lonely during that period as well. I remember crying to Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You” when she sang, “we both know I’m not what you need” because I wondered if anyone would ever need me. That sounds a bit pathetic now, but at the time, I felt completely sincere in my young adult angst. 

But this “conflict” between Alex and Clay reminded me that we hear, see, and remember things in different ways. That may sound obvious, but I think we often assume that the way we experience events is how everyone experiences them. A love song can bring back happy memories of early courtship for a long-term couple. The same song can make someone else sad and bring back painful memories of love lost. We perceive things differently because of our age, our upbringings, the struggles we’ve endured, the state of our minds and emotions. 

When Ben and I were dating, we saw a movie that was not intended to produce strong emotions. As we walked back to his apartment, I was obviously in my feelings. He asked what was wrong. I said, “I don’t want to end up like that woman in the movie!” She was a mean workaholic who was detached from her family. I didn’t even have a family of my own yet, but my fear of turning into a person like that shook me up. The key to that conversation though was Ben asking me why I’d had that reaction. He didn’t make assumptions about why I was suddenly distraught. He didn’t substitute his version of events or his perceptions. He asked. He wanted to know how I’d filtered the story so he could understand. 

That’s a lesson we can all stand to learn over and over. The only way we can even come close to understanding what another person is thinking or feeling is to ask them to tell us. To be open to their answer even if it’s not part of our experience. And to take their words and emotions seriously. If we dismiss them because we don’t think their experience is valid, we damage the relationship. We can’t tell another person that “those aren’t the right words” when they reveal what is true for them. So, the next time we hear someone “singing” a song with lyrics we don’t recognize, let’s ask them to share the meaning of their words so we can forge a stronger connection between us. 

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