I was given the opportunity to write ‘“Just One” as the original song for the new documentary film Generation Found about youth addiction and recovery issues. Since joining the project, I’ve traveled the country performing my music with a sense of purpose I’ve never felt before.
I’ve told my recovery story, and I’ve heard the stories of so many I’ve performed for and met along the way. And there are so many more stories that need to be told until they are integrated into the consciousness of our country and our people. Performing this song on the same stage the day of the release of the first-ever Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health was an honor I will never forget!
“Just One” has quite a story, one that’s beautiful and miraculous and filled with the same hope and wonder that have filled my days since I found recovery. Like all art, it’s up to the individual to interpret the song’s meaning based on his or her own life experiences, but I will do my best to explain exactly what these words meant to me when they arrived.
“I think I ask too many questions,
and I know I’ll never understand
how to help all those around me,
when I am just one man.”
This first verse addresses just how tiny and inadequate I often feel when confronted with the enormity of the problems we face. Addiction, poverty, war, corruption and pollution are all on that list. These are massive, systemic problems that affect all of us on direct and spiritual levels and I, as one person, have no idea how to solve them.
Moreover, when tasked with writing a song that could encapsulate the message of a film as profound as Generation Found, I began to think I wasn’t up to writing it, that I wasn’t good enough. I even questioned what any musician could really accomplish in the grand scheme of such serious issues. My fear caused me to wonder if songs were superficial and trivial in comparison to the chaos in our world. What could one guy and his guitar really do?
“And there’s so many who feel helpless,
That there’s just too much to be done
But I know that it makes all the difference,
That revolution has begun,
If I can help Just One.”
In this second half of the first verse, the narrative takes a turn. As someone in recovery, someone who has struggled with addiction his entire life, I believe I truly know what it means to feel helpless. I have been helpless at the hands of my disease.
Often our personal problems pile up just like those of our community, of our city, of our country and our world and it seems like there’s just too damn much to fix and no good place to start. But through my recovery, I’ve learned that there are many, many other people who know what it’s like to feel helpless. I’ve also seen the magic of how one person helping another can lead to families and communities coming out of the darkness and back to life.
I’ve felt my own personal redemption in the most humble acts of service, and I’ve seen the light go on in people’s eyes simply through sharing the message that recovery is possible. In this way, I believe helping just one person who then takes that gift and gives it freely to another is truly a revolutionary act.
“If I can help just one,
and he can help just one,
and she can help just one
if we can help just one.”
I remember a week or two before I wrote ‘“Just One,” I performed for the gentlemen at St. Christopher’s Inn, a shelter and inpatient facility in upstate New York. After performing, a man with tears in his eyes approached me and said, “You know what they say about musicians and gigs . . . if you can touch just one person, you’ve done your job. You did your job today.”
Then he hugged me. I couldn’t help but tear up myself, because I so often question my own worth as a performer and writer. Moments like the ones at St. Christopher’s are validating and spiritually nourishing for me.
But the truly magic moment that night occurred above the L train stop on 14th street. I had writer’s block and only about a week left on my deadline to deliver a song for the film. I had decided to go with my friend Cici to see our friend’s band perform in Brooklyn and to try to reset my mind. Cici is an art therapist and works with children, and before we started walking down the stairs to the train she said to me. “If only I could help just one of those kids . . .” and the phrase hit me immediately. I could already hear it being sung.
She put into words what we both felt so strongly; the need to make a difference and the knowledge that if we could change just one person’s life for the better, everything would be worthwhile.
I think it’s important to note that these lyrics can also be drawn from the film itself. A woman named Regina Hasan gives a speech where she discusses what “peer-led recovery” looks like, and says, “he takes it to him, and he takes it to her, and she takes it to her” and onward. In my own personal experience, this chain, this domino effect, is how the whole process of recovery works.
“I’ll put my heart into my labor,
and I’ll burn my back under the sun,
I’ll share the harvest with all my neighbors,
I’ll work until my hands are numb
If I can help just one.”
To me, this line is about building a community. I love to work hard. I love to feel passion and to feel lost in a task and a challenge, but I must feel a sense of purpose in my work. If I feel connected, I can’t be stopped. More than that, I feel tremendous joy in it.
Before recovery, I considered myself a loner for the most part. I was out for myself and in competition with everyone around me. It wasn’t until recovery that I felt the sustaining love and energy that being part of a community provides. Helping others and selfless action are the foundation stones of the new life I have been given, and singing this song always helps me to remember that.
“I always gave to the collection,
always hoping I’d get something back
so now I’ll offer this reflection
to all the mourners dressed in black.”
This is the first half of the third verse, the verse that in many ways means the most to me. This is my spiritual dilemma. When the basket is passed, when I give to the collection, when I help another person, am I not doing it because somewhere secretly inside I want to be rewarded for it? I believe I have had a spiritual experience and that I have felt the power of compassion and altruism in my life, but I am not free of my wants and desires. I wrote this verse shortly after the funeral service held for my stepmother’s father, and I couldn’t help but think of all the funerals that will be held for children taken from us by addiction.
“Lord knows it’s so hard to pray
when mercy only comes to some,
but we seek forgiveness when we rise each day
because our work is never done
if we can help just one.”
With all those funerals in mind, there is an inevitable moment of doubt, a moment of questioning my own faith. What form of benevolent higher power allows for such tragedy? Why was I shown mercy? I’ve found no answer to those questions, only the humility to stop asking and to turn my energy and my life to doing what I can.
I know that it isn’t up to me to fix all our problems and to save the world, but today I can make a difference in at least one person’s life. Knowing that is a gift, and I always feel determined and grateful by the time I reach this point in the song. I know I ask too many questions, and I know I’ll never understand, but now I know that I don’t have to.
Matt Butler’s Music can be found at: http://mattbutlerofficial.com/
To Learn More About Generation Found: http://generationfoundfilm.com/