What, exactly is “essential”​

June 1, 2020

I’ve been thinking about this recent Covid-19 phenomenon of categorizing products, services, and people based on whether they are considered “essential” or not.  I’m not exactly sure who made the distinction, but in my mind’s eye I pictured a group of really smart people somewhere in an underground government bunker doing their best to decide what was critical and what wasn’t. Apparently, Wal Mart and Home Depot made the cut, while churches and schools did not. Whatever the process, In the end, they designated certain industries and public service functions as being deemed “too critical to be halted during the crisis”.  I understand the concept, and in fact many of our business clients were part of the “critical infrastructure workforce”. We have been busy supporting them throughout the crisis and their efforts to continue to produce products and services have been nothing short of heroic.  They have, in fact, been essential and the workers supporting them have been critical. But what about those considered non-essential? Are they any less crucial?

Recently, several small business owners that were designated as non-essential defied local guidelines and restrictions in attempting to reopen their doors. Their stories were all very similar – they needed to reopen to take care of their employees, pay their bills, and serve their customers. Many had been in business for decades and after two months of “mandatory shutdown” were on the brink of having to permanently shutter their doors. Now, it may be easy for some to make the case that a hair salon or a microbrewery is hardly essential to life, but for those people they were absolutely essential. I found their stories compelling, in some cases heartbreaking. In many towns and cities across the nation, there are thousands, maybe even millions of people whose lives are being forever changed just because someone deemed their business, their job, their function as being not that important.

This article is not intended to come down on one side or the other of the medical or even political side of this issue, but it does provide an opportunity to explore the concept of essential versus non-essential in our own lives.  If we are being honest, this notion of allocating things to a category based on a measure of value happens all day every day in our own little worlds. The people we meet, the friends and family we have, the way we spend our time all get passed through a personal lens that determine their priority or intrinsic value in our lives – ‘this person is important’; ‘that event is essential’; ‘spending time doing “X’ is a waste of time’ – and on and on it goes.  In most cases, where something falls on that continuum usually is determined by how much we get out of it. Let’s face it, at the end of the day, we are pretty selfish creatures and tend to make decisions based on self-enhancement at some level.  Have you ever noticed that oftentimes one of the first words a small child learns is “Mine!”? we don’t change much over time, we just get better at hiding it.

So, while selfishness is our natural inclination, it’s not the way we have to live our lives nor does it have to drive our value system. Jesus, who set the standard for placing value and worth on others ahead of Himself, teaches us that every person has worth and “the greatest among us is servant of all”.  In short, He chose to place everyone in the same bucket he labeled “essential”. Unlike Jesus, you and I aren’t perfect, and we don’t have infinite time, so our lives require that we make choices on how and what we do every day. But what if we made those choices based on the notion that the value of things is determined less on self and more on others? I think our world would be a much better place.

As I write this article, the nation is facing another racially charged incident that makes this conversation even more relevant. Covid-19 has revealed a lot about our culture. Some good, some not so good. One thing that it’s made me do, I hope in a good way, is to think twice before I categorize someone as essential or important and others as not quite measuring up. It’s not as clear cut as I once thought and, as always, there is room and grace for improvement.

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