the most important thing


Image by GMB Akash

I’m talking to people tonight, only I can’t zone in. I’m listening, mostly — as they talk about addiction, alcoholism, denial, self-image, and self-harm. They roll their heavily made-up eyes as they puff on cigarettes and share that their 18-year-old sisters just announced that they’re pregnant and are “super excited” about it. “What do they know about being a mom?” they complain. Their own moms are addicted to heroin, and “Dad ran off with his secretary,” not to mention their 19-year-old boyfriends were killed in car accidents about two months ago. “His blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit. He’d just graduated from AA . . .”

Some of them are old enough to be adults — they are adults — but they’re shoplifting like it’s 1999, and they too would rather drink than work on their recoveries. Never mind that they’ve been hospitalized because of their addictions. They are invincible, and, somehow, it’s everyone — and everything — else’s fault. “I have a personality disorder,” they say, or, “I don’t know. I just don’t know . . .” And they shrug their skeletal shoulders and cast bleary eyes to the floor and sigh.

And I cry a little inside as I look around the room at their faces, taking notes. They are all of them beautiful — each in their own way — but they are sick and cannot see what I see . . .

And not only that. In addition to observing each woman’s loveliness and potential, I am remembering the far off hustle and bustle of the streets in Bangkok, and the cripples on the dusty sidewalks of Siem Reap, and the children crying in Syria, and the man who lives in a one-room hut on the muddy hillside in Clear Water Bay. What is drug addiction to poverty? An eating disorder to starvation? Self-harm to all-out war? Don’t they know how good they have it?

And yet . . .

Their problems are real problems, too, I’m seeing, and no less of a struggle than their third-world counterparts’. It’s no more their fault that they are vulnerable to alcoholism, or an eating disorder, or drug abuse than children in Africa are at fault because they are vulnerable to starvation. And the same is true for you — for the job you just lost, the mortgage you’re worried about, the rattling sound your car is making, the anger problem you have, the medical bill that’s coming that don’t know how you’re going to pay . . .

Whatever your struggle, it is important.

The most important thing, though, isn’t actually your struggle. It’s how you deal with your struggle. The minute the world takes a step outside of its own head, and figures out what it really wants, and finds its value not in itself or in appearances but in what it can do for others, and realizes what it can and cannot control, and takes responsibility for its own actions . . . is the minute this world becomes a better place.

Note: Some portions of this story have been fictionalized.


Image: GMB Akash — an amazing photographer based out of Bangladesh

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42 thoughts

    • Thank you so much, Benjamin. I kind of freaked out right after posting this and was going to delete it when I saw your comment… You saved it… I know you are dealing with your own struggles — which are no fault of your own! — and I am continually amazed by your courage, strength, positivity, and general kindness and concern for others. The world needs more people like you!

  1. Jess,
    As you know, I am involved and hence surrounded almost daily by “addiction” — one or two of my past posts about my sister. And you NAILED it: when “the world takes a step outside of its own head…” The ‘disease’ (as they call it) is unbelievably self-absorbing. Just yesterday my sister — who just finished for the umpteenth time, 7-days detox but then Medicaid denied her 30-days inpatient treatment — couldn’t hold a normal conversation with my mother before interrupting her with anything, whatever was on her mind. My mother never finished most all of her thoughts, ideas, suggestions to my sister without her just going off on her own ‘world’. I watched this for 3 hours yesterday. Self-absorbed is only ONE aspect of addiction too. :-(

    This is a good post from the outside looking in. I can totally relate.

    • Yup, self-absorption is a huge problem, not only with addiction, but with society in general today. The perspective that can be gained from taking a step back and examining how others are doing in the world is something *everyone* should do more. I’m sorry for what you’ve been through with your family. I can relate.

  2. Hi Jess,

    Are those people you talked to reading your blog? It seems that it’s their friends and relatives having these struggles and problems, and not them. Anonymity matters. I wouldn’t be as courageous as you to post about my friends if they are in the same dire situations.

    I understand your struggles though. When lots of thoughts race through your mind about the sufferings in this world, which you can’t change anyway, you want to escape but your conscience keeps you there, forcing you to figure out a solution for them just so that you can have the peace of mind for the rest of the day. Sometimes, we wish we were numb.

    • You are smart to ask that David, and, no. None of these people are real friends or know about my blog. I will likely never see any of them again, actually.

      I wish I could fix the whole world or at least somehow even the playing field, but alas all I can do is love others as much as I can and try to use my talents for good.

      • You deleted my other comment. I thought it could be some volunteer work you do after work. Fictional or not, I am more worried about their reactions when they see your blog and your face here, which connect easily. But, if it’s fictional, there’s nothing to worry about, because they don’t exist.

        Many Taiwanese celebrities do this outside their work, sometimes to share the gospel, sometimes as a means to boost their fame and fortune. Hollywood stars do the same, but not at such a personal level to have intimate talks with victims and addicts. The bottom line is, if the camera man is there with you, we know what it is for. Emotional support is important. That’s undeniable. You see, I know Taiwan.

  3. Damn girl ;-) Thank you so much for sharing this with us. Insightful, honest and very real. Our problems are big because they are ours. We’re the one’s experiencing them, feeling them and dealing with them. They are close to us. And as you said, it’s not what the problem is, it’s what you are doing to solve it. Well done Jess :-)

    • You are so right, Lianne. Our problems are real because they are ours. I’ve actually chickened out and deleted my last lines. I didn’t realize when writing this just how scary that would be for me. The point remains the same even without my tidbit.

  4. Thank you for sharing this, Jess. I think the hard part about struggle/struggling is knowing the steps in order to deal with it. Sometimes we get overwhelmed by what everyone tells us to do, but at the same time we might get lost, confused and consumed by our own thoughts if we only listen to ourselves. Struggling is an ongoing learning process.

    I want to end this comment on a happy note. So: the weekend is almost here! I hope you have a good one :)

  5. “I wish I could fix the whole world or at least somehow even the playing field, but alas all I can do is love others” in a way somehow you just did, you admitted the problem and fixing just one person, even if it was yourself, evened the playing field just a little more. You are a smart, brave, beautiful, loving soul.

  6. Kudos for your insight and honesty Jess! I love this piece. We all have our own struggles and what you highlighted is so true. Only we can help ourselves if we take the first step to acknowledge that we have problems. A lot of us are in unhealthy denial. Thank you for bringing perspective here. :D

  7. Good insight here. I’ve had some of these problems, some seriously. I feel as though most of my problems require a spiritual solution. Trust “god”, clean house, and help others.

    We also need to remember that our culture and our genetics bring about almost all off the mental diseases, so these are not simple matters of will power or lack of gratitude. When the culture is diseased, many of its people will be diseased.

    It’s also true that most of these diseases require help from others, no matter how difficult it is to admit you need help and ask for it, it seems we must have help from others. Then, as we recover, if we offer help, it helps us stay in recovery. It’s magical how we can help each other in the right environment, but it takes great patience and acceptance.

    • I love your insight, too, Carl. You are very right that a lot of the problems people deal with today *are* a result of genetics and culture. There seems to be no end to the problems society creates for itself…

      I’ve had my own struggles, too, which I originally included in this post and then edited away. I do agree that there is a spiritual component to recovery, and also — yes! — a need for help from others. Recovery can’t happen on its own, and both patience and acceptance are a huge part of it… Your words are very wise.

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting. I hope you have a wonderful weekend! :) Jessica

    • Haha, Lucas. He also had an old wife and a garden. They spoke Cantonese. He had gap teeth and a lovely bronzed, wrinkled face and smile.

      I could probably get his number for you, if you have a translator. He lived right across the street from the school where I worked in Hong Kong. :)

  8. I know what you mean. Everyone’s troubles are what troubles them. And there are far more troublesome things in the world that provides perspective to those who are closest to us. And I always say that it would be so easy just to stand on a corner and give advice, pass out money and solve the world’s problems, but then that’s not what I want to do. For the past ten years I have been giving myself away for free in the sense that I have stood for other people’s rights. But, in so doing I was avoiding doing what I should have been doing, which was to go to law school, for example. Now, it’s too late. And probably it wasn’t what I wanted to do anyway. I want the respect. I feel like I am better than what I do. But, then if I keep to this road, I might be finished in 10 years. Having $3000 a month plus what I will eventually make in Social Security, if that is still there. But, ten years is still a long road. I’ve already given 10 years. I feel like I’ve missed everything, except I have found that I love writing, and I love making art. And so how I deal with my struggle is that I stay close to the books I love and the writing I love to do. I always thought that something would come of it, like writing for The New Yorker, except that I found out how much they make and how hard they work. Reality is a strange place. It is the truth of both parties, Democrat and Republican. Truth is along two parallel lines that never intersect. And realizing this fact makes you tolerant of others. I think you know this having fallen off a cliff. Like you I do things that I think are real. I don’t so much care that I have no future partaking in them, because at the same time, I am also working a normal job and also helping other people. Nothing is so very important as helping another person, but it is also true that if we run away from ourselves and what we know we are supposed to be taking care of, God might just take us up. We have a purpose. We can always feel it. Just like I know that I have to study for the LSAT even though I may never go to law school because I am afraid of the test, not law school, although I probably should be. I am also afraid of the GRE in English Lit, and so I should take that also. And so I think that is what life is about. And those people you met may be running away from that. And we don’t know why. Maybe because of trauma, something for which they were innocent, but maybe they are like me. They keep putting it off. At a point, we cannot sacrifice ourselves for the purposes of others. We are not on this earth to live for someone else. That’s their business. So, I don’t know what you are doing. Are you running away? Are you trying to be the person who left you? You are smarter than I am. And I am just projecting my desires, which means I am not taking responsibility for myself. We all hope, and some of us express ourselves shamelessly. You look on: “And…cry a little…taking notes.”

  9. Very thought provoking post Jess, so well written. Many things in life are relative, as I think that term is significant in that as a group most of us do not understand or ‘get it’ when it comes to the issues you have mentioned above. Strange to have someone dealing with an issue that on the surface appears to be insignificant, but their suffering is real & intense and in their minds comparable to intense issues such as war/starvation/family being ripped apart.

    Things are very relative, and this post makes my heart go out to those people… But, in the comment section, Professor Taboo add a perspective and insight with his comment on ‘self-absorption’ that I did not originally consider. Very powerful.

    • Thank you so much… Yes, everything is relative. There are so many angles that could be taken with this story, too. There are those who are forced into treatment and don’t take responsibility for their actions but rather feel sorry for themselves. People who like to play victim have a hard time gaining my sympathy. But there are also many people who *do* take responsibility and try very hard to change. It’s also true, as I mentioned, that there *are* many many things that can contribute to the development of one of these problems. (I myself understand fully the perfectionism and societal pressure that could lead to an eating disorder…)

      Really, though, to me the key is taking our focus off of ourselves. This world and its people and potential are beautiful if we allow ourselves to take notice and be a part of them. It’s when we become internally focused and feel sorry for ourselves that the entire world becomes dark and gloomy indeed.

      Thanks again!

    • Thank you, Walter. I really do believe that, while there is a lot that is out of our control that makes us who we are, we are all still ultimately responsible for the decisions we make and the way we approach life. People who like to play victim to their circumstances have a hard time gaining my sympathy. Yes, life sucks for a lot of us. But there are always people better and worse off than we are, and what defines us (in my mind) is not our circumstances but how we respond to them.

      Hope you’re having a great weekend!

      • My weekends are usually busy but very good. And this one was really good. I yours was as well.

        My prayer is that people can find hope for themselves no matter the situation.

        That the can discover purpose in life.

        That they can serve others and get their eyes off themselves. I Heard about a lady who complained about not having shoes to wear unto she met another who had no feet let alone a pair of shoe.

        Somehow, that this circle of dysfunction can be broken and a new generation can rise up.

        Hope you have space for these many words.

        Have a great week Jessica!

  10. Love this! “The most important thing, though, isn’t actually your struggle. It’s how you deal with your struggle”. We make things so complicated, but in the end…it really doesn’t need to be, does it?

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