What the Most Depressing Song in the World Tells Us About Human Nature

The first time I heard the song I kind of liked it, until I really listened, then I despised it.

The twangy country ballad about a son discovering how much his late father loved him, spoke to people. Randy Travis sang, “We all thought his heart was made of solid rock. But that was long before we found the box.” The box discovered on the top shelf of his father’s workshop after he had died contains: A letter from his wife, a flower from a vacation, the pocketknife his son had given him. The family is surprised the gruff father without much to say loved his family so much he saved these sentimental things.

“The Box,” was wildly popular, playing continually on country radio in the mid-90s. People identified with a father for whom “I love you was hard to say” and the adult son who discovered his dad’s softer side after he was gone.

Billboard magazine, said it was “simply told and beautifully sung.”

It was.

It was also horrible. The most gut-wrenching lyric was:

The poem that he had written, about his wife and children.
The tender words he spoke were quite a shock.
We all thought his heart was made of solid rock.
But that was long before we found the box.

The man found the words to write a tender poem about his family, and yet he couldn’t bring himself to speak the words aloud?

The depressingly relatable song speaks to generations of lost opportunity. Gruff 1950’s dads might be the prototype for not expressing heartfelt emotion. But they’re hardly the only ones who keep their heir love and praise to themselves.

How many spouses don’t give voice to their emotion because they believe their partner already knows, or they assume their actions demonstrate their love?

In a workplace setting, I frequently encounter bosses reluctant to praise their team because as one leader said, “I pay them, why should have to tell them they’re great?”

The simple answer is, because they need to hear it.

When you ask people why they don’t express their love or praise out loud, they give you all kinds of reasons: The person already knows, if I tell them this part is wonderful, they’ll slack off on everything else, I wasn’t raised that way, their paychecks are enough, they should know it from my actions, and on and on.

The real reason is people are afraid. Afraid they’ll be judged, afraid they won’t do it right, or afraid they’ll be rejected. Fear makes you vulnerable, vulnerability is uncomfortable, and the safest bet often seems to be to stay silent. But it’s not safe; it’s actually quite dangerous.

“The Box” isn’t just a song; it plays out in real life. A friend of mine spent her entire life feeling judged by her mother because of her choice to pursue a career in freelance graphic design. After her mother died my friend discovered her mother had meticulously saved all of her art for decades.  My friend sobbed and raged at the loss. Finding out later didn’t make it better; it made it worse. A simple, I like your work or I’m proud of you would have changed everything. Instead her mother went to her grave without ever truly connecting with her daughter.

Nothing bad happens when you tell people you care. Bad things happen when you don’t.