By Trudy Wischemann

Many of us have been asking ourselves and others “what’s non-essential?” The definition is crucial, and the lives of many people have been blasted apart by having their jobs placed in that category. The injustice that some big-box stores have remained open because part of their offerings are “essential,” allowing shoppers (like myself, I might add) to pick up some non-essential things at the same time, while smaller businesses selling those same items had to close—that injustice must be staring some of us in the face right now.

The bigger challenge, however, is finding a working definition of “essential.” I welcome the opportunity to hone my definition, though I’m starting to feel the challenge of it, too. As we’ve moved through the first weeks of this quarantine period into the prospect that months more lie ahead, the novelty is turning to reality that it will never be the same as it was. So what’s essential? What must we work to protect and save, and what must we let go?

I think the way we’re interpreting it at the moment, at least in the realm of national policy, “essential” means those things that are necessary for existence, i.e, the primary needs of food, shelter, health. We have partially included the education of our children as essential, in that whatever continuity can be provided online (to whoever can access that medium), and educators of all kinds are working to extend educational services to include things like dance and exercise, music and art, while funders are finding ways to increase online access. We’ve included keeping our cars running (gasoline, mechanics, auto parts) and our homes functioning (hardware and building supplies.) The boon to online shopping (for both essential and non-essential goods and services) cannot be ignored, nor the concomitant impact on brick-and-mortar businesses.

“Essential” means something more, however. Kindness is essential to human beings, as well as to animals and the earth. It seems to me that some of us are reaching for it more in our masked and distanced interactions with each other. Last week I saw a young man in a mask with a huge smile painted on it and mistook it for the real thing, so in need of that gesture was I, both in offering and receiving it. I find myself waving at strangers as I drive by, and am warmed when the wave is returned. To see and be seen, to be acknowledged as existing—this is essential.

To feel like your days count—that you, with your available calories, attention, intelligence and compassion, have something to offer the world—this also is essential. Right now, some people are finding themselves exhausted with counting, while others of us are asking ourselves if we count at all, and whether we might find a new way of counting in the world. I’m going to make a boldfaced proposition that everyone counts, and that every day counts, and that the silver lining of this pandemic might be that now we have new ways of perceiving that truth and following that recognition. 

Another silver lining might be that, having some of the non-essential stripped away, we can see where it has been undermining what is essential, necessary for human health, plain good. It’s certainly happened in my life, and I don’t think I’m alone. The question for us as a people is how not to abandon those whose essential incomes have been produced by providing us with the non-essential. I don’t think we can expect the billionaires to come to their rescue, but maybe there’s hope even for that.

The philosophical definition of “essence” is “the inward nature of anything, underlying its manifestations,” its “true substance.” By having this conversation, finally, about what is essential and what is not, we have a chance to rediscover America’s true substance, and our own. Blessings on your house and on our streets.

Trudy Wischemann is a work-at-home cat mom who writes. You can send her your essential discoveries c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247 or visit www.trudysnotesfromhome.blogspot.com and leave a comment there.

This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Sun-Gazette newspaper.

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