I want to talk now about mixtapes. They were the 1980s version of a playlist, but instead of living in iTunes, they lived on good old-fashioned plastic cassettes. When a cassette broke, you didn’t take it to the Apple Genius bar. You took a number-2 yellow pencil, stuck it in one of the sprockets, and spun it around. Boom, you were back in business.
If you’ve seen the movie Guardians of the Galaxy, then you’ve seen a mixtape in action and know how precious they can be. Star-Lord is willing to risk his life to get back his sweet collection of tunes custom made for him by his mom. Mixtapes were like that. They were personal. They were cherished.
Talking about mixtapes makes me feel really old. I might as well be wearing pleated Dockers and a fanny pack. (No offense to those who still wear pleated Dockers and a fanny pack.)
But I am a child of the 1980s. Star Wars and Luke Skywalker. The Love Boat with Captain Stubing and his daughter Vicki (whom I had a slight crush on). Love was always happening out on the high seas. I also loved Fantasy Island with the white suits and matching shoes and Mr. Roarke with his suave Latin accent. Everything was going to be okay if Mr. Roarke said it was going to be okay. He taught my childhood brain how the world and dreams and fantasies really worked. And let’s not forget Magnum driving his red Ferrari and living in a rich guy’s house for free. He was the coolest guy in Hawaii and always solved the case.
I also loved my mixtapes.
I would load my favorite songs from my favorite bands all in a row: Culture Club, REO Speedwagon, Bon Jovi. Then I would play that mixtape nonstop in my big gray boom box. I played it so much I wore the tape out. The tape just gave up one day. It got eaten by the player and never played again.
But we have a different kind of mixtape these days. It doesn’t play the awesome melodies of REO Speedwagon or Journey. I’m not even talking about iPods, Sirius, or Spotify. No, these mixtapes are invisible, and they play in our heads and hearts. They play up our fears and insecurities. They play a soundtrack of our failures.
They pump out the discouraging tunes of self-hatred with lyrics like . . .
I need to _________ better.
I should be further along than I am.
My life doesn’t matter.
Have you heard these songs before? They strip our stories of hope and life. They drown out possibility.
I’m not sure where these tapes come from, but I know a lot about them. Every verse. Every chorus. Every melody. Every bridge back into the chorus. It’s all pure evil echoing inside our brains like elevator music.
And have you noticed this about your mixtape?
The messages aren’t that creative. The lyrics aren’t catchy or original. They are like a horrible jingle that gets stuck in your head. They repeat the same thing over and over again. “You stink. You stink. You stink.” It’s like being stuck on the It’s a Small World ride at Disneyland, but the music you keep hearing sings, “You’re a loser after all. You’re a loo-hoo-serrrr.”
How unoriginal. What crappy content. How long do you think we should listen to it?
A couple of months ago I was sitting in my office, and my negative mixtape started to play. It had been a discouraging season. A few triggers here and there. Reasons to doubt myself. Throw in a few pinches of doubt and worry, and I found myself in a low place.
I felt inadequate and lonely.
You’re a loser after all. . . .
Our organization was taking on water and sinking. Finances were scary. I took full responsibility.
You’re a loser after all. . . .
I felt like an idiot, embarrassed by it all. The picture in my head wasn’t working out like it was supposed to.
You’re a loser after all. . . .
So you know what I thought? I thought what every leader thinks when the mixtape is playing at full blast. I said to myself, I should just quit and get a job at Starbucks, because the baristas there look like they are having a lot more fun than I’m having right now. Good health insurance. Fun atmosphere. Make cappuccino all day. I would just disappear into the world of Howard Schultz and green aprons.
But then I realized I didn’t need a new life or a new job. I needed a new soundtrack. I needed to deal with the mixtape in my head.
I started seeing a Christian counselor, and I realized how messed up and ugly my mixtape was. My self-doubt sounded so normal to me, but it was totally whacked.
My counselor said, “Mike, you write about grace. You preach about grace. You desperately want grace for other people. Isn’t it about time you started smoking what you’re selling? Maybe it’s time for you to get a little grace for yourself.”
FEELING THE MUSIC
Let me ask you a question. And be honest. What is your mixtape playing right now? Can you step back and look at your thoughts for just a moment and see what they are doing to you? Can you see the damage being done? Are you tired of listening to the tape?
There’s an old adage in moviemaking: “You watch the film but you feel the music.” The soundtrack has incredible influence on how we emotionally respond to the events we’re seeing on the screen. Try watching a movie with the sound off. Not quite the same.
In the same way, our mental mixtapes provide the music for the things that happen to us. They can make us feel horrible about events that aren’t horrible at all or at least aren’t as bad as all that. We live our life, but we feel the music.
So how can we swap out the gloomy, doubt-filled mixtapes that play in the background of our heads and hearts?
Call baloney on the lyrics.
Just because Jon Bon Jovi sang that he’s a cowboy and that he’s wanted dead or alive doesn’t mean it’s true.1 In fact, Bon Jovi lied to make a great song.
Calling out your own tape as being filled with half-truths, distorted pictures, and outright lies is where you should start. Your self-doubts represent only one version of reality. It’s not fact but a point of view, just as a song is only what one artist wants to say. Do the more degrading examples of gangsta rap clearly and truthfully define the value of a woman? Does country music have the sole truth on what a broken heart looks like? Nope, they represent just the songwriters’ opinions. And singing a song over and over again doesn’t make it true. It just makes it harder to ignore.
Take control of the buttons.
I know, I know. It’s nice to think we are powerless victims who have no choice but to wallow in self-hatred. It’s convenient since it requires no action on our part. Many of us chose a destructive soundtrack for our lives and actually like the beat and the vibe. It feels familiar. It’s all we know. But just like my gray boom box, the music in our head has buttons such as Play, Pause, and Stop. More important, we have a Record button.
If you pushed the red Record button and the Play button on my boom box at the same time, something amazing happened. A new song recorded itself over the old song. So when Madonna stopped being awesome, and I was sick of listening to “Lucky Star,” I could smash down the Play and Record buttons and cover it up with the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill. On the same tape! I could also hit the Eject button and pop in a fresh cassette, but either way, you get my point.
We have buttons. We get to choose which buttons we push. When the song wears out or it wears us out, we can change it. It doesn’t matter how much we love a song, we can still get tired of it. Trust me, even the best song in the world can start to feel stale. I always wonder how bands like U2 and the Rolling Stones keep playing the same hits over and over again. The fans demand it. So U2 must play “Where the Streets Have No Name” and the Rolling Stones must play “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” Sure, they might remix it, do an acoustic version, or change up the melody a bit, but they still have to play that song. It must get really old. Just like telling yourself over and over again, “You’re stupid. You’re hopeless. It will always be this way.” It grows tiring.
Some of us have stopped listening to the words on our inner mixtapes, but that hasn’t stopped their impact. The music is so much a part of us that we feel the effects even though we don’t hear the tune. The words that play are no longer the tape’s words but our words.
I start thinking, I am a cowboy on a steel horse and I am wanted dead or alive. It’s no longer a lyric from the mixtape; it is who I am. And that’s when it gets really scary because we end up in a place far from who God made us to be. We end up completely defined by a lie.
THE SONG THAT GOD SINGS
So think about this for a moment. You and I have our mixtapes. We struggle with the soundtracks in our heads. It’s hard not to be affected, especially when life is not going well, but here is something to consider. No matter what your tape says about you, God says something quite different. He says he likes you just the way you are. I know it is sometimes hard to believe that God is proud of you, that he loves you. But this is the song he sings over you. It’s the soundtrack of grace.
I once heard of a survey that asked a bunch of Christians what they believed God thought about them. What is the emotion he feels toward Christians? It’s a good question. You know what the survey revealed? It was kinda shocking, honestly. The majority of people who responded to the survey basically said, “When God thinks about me, the overwhelming feeling he has is disappointment.”
Disappointment. Can you believe that? After all the sermons and songs and devotions and bumper stickers and Bible verses we read about God’s love, we still think he is disappointed with us. How horrible! What an indictment on what’s going on right now. Because here’s the truth: if you think God feels disappointment when he looks at you, then you don’t know God very well. It’s time to throw out that song and start over.
We need to start listening to the mixtape of grace and eject the Enemy’s mixtape of shame. If the voice you hear in your head is one of condemnation, you can be sure it’s not the voice of God.
And you know what else I’ve learned? There is nothing holy, spiritual, or godly about beating yourself up. Beating yourself up is not a fruit of the Spirit. Talking bad to yourself is not a spiritual solution. It’s a symptom of a spiritual problem that God’s love song is meant to fix.
When you find yourself dying under the doleful tunes on your lousy mixtape, feeling like a failure, a nothing on the way to nowhere, hit Pause. Stop listening to yourself, and start talking to yourself. Say, “So what if I’m a hypocrite and feel like a fraud? So what if the Enemy on my mixtape wants to play his tune? Let that accuser sling his lies and accusations. Let him blacklist me and shame me, ’cuz whatever the accuser throws my way is just a tape. A tape I can stop, eject, record over. I want to listen to a different tape. A different song. A rockin’ tune that reminds me I am whole, free, and forgiven. I am heaven’s poetry. I am God’s beloved, and he sings over me.”
Mike Foster is Founder of People of the Second Chance, an organization dedicated to helping people relaunch their lives with a sense of hope and purpose. He regularly speaks at conferences around the country and is the author of People of the Second Chance: A Guide to Bringing Life-Saving Love to the World, from which this article has been adapted. He lives with his family near San Diego. Learn more at secondchance.org.