Essential Worker Illustration by DepositPhoto

Some Essentials About Being Unessential

By Paul Graves

One of the tussles endured by Idaho and virtually every U. S. state during the pandemic has to do with “essential” and “nonessential” businesses.  Those designations are stark reminders for us as to what businesses are highly important to how our society and our communities function.         

Plus even most essential businesses try to maintain safe practices that protect both employees and customers.  A problem arises for us when some businesses are seen as non-essential for some people, but “I” want them to be essential to “me.”          

I could give you a list of what have been described as essential businesses, and non-essential businesses.  But you likely know what those categories cover.  I’ll just say that an article from the City of San Francisco lists 25categories of essential businesses.         

I agreed with the list, because our society depends on those businesses for nearly every service we’ve come to expect and benefit from.  That list doesn’t leave much on the non-essential list. Another article describes those businesses as primarily recreational in nature.  (Though how is getting my hair cut a recreational pursuit?)        

So the debate about re-opening some businesses that currently occupies the news cycle is not a black-or-white issue –regardless whether some persons are sure it is.  This debate gets heated when our own sense of “essence” is challenged, even indirectly.        

And there’s the rub.  Our own sense of “essence.” Now we’re going beyond our desire for convenience, for comfort, for basic needs like food, economic stability, for keeping our important routines.  A lack of these in our lives can actually call into question whether we see ourselves as essential or non-essential.  And that’s a big question!       

For decades, older adults in American culture have generally been dismissed in so many ways because after we stop working for our living, we are seen as “unproductive”.  Many other cultures honor their elders much better than America has.  Have you considered why that might be?        

I think it has to do with a skewed understanding of our economic system. At its worst, capitalism first sees every person, regardless of age, either as a potential producer, an actual producer, or a former producer. When we can produce, we are “essential.”  Retirees can become an unintended target of those who believe a person’s worth depends only on his/her ability to produce something.        

I have news for that attitude.  It’s dead wrong! Not to mention a perversion of the very idea of being human!        

All persons have essential worth as human beings.  Our jobs too often seem to define us. It’s up to us to define our jobs as what we do or did, but they don’t define who we are.  We are born with human worth; and that must never be defined, or even described, only by what we do.        

So if you’re frustrated in this very difficult pandemic moment because your job is not “essential”, please remember this: you are essential as a person – hopefully first of all to yourself, but also to family members or a good friend.  You will never be “non-essential”!

About Paul Graves

Paul Graves is a retired and re-focused United Methodist pastor and a long-time resident of Sandpoint, Idaho, where he formerly served on city council and mayor. His second career is in geriatric social work, and since 2005 he's been the Lead Geezer-in-Training of Elder Advocates, a consulting and teaching ministry on aging issues. Since 1992, Graves has been a volunteer chaplain for Bonner Community Hospice. His columns regularly appear in the Spokesman-Review's Faith and Values section and he also writes the Dear Geezer column for the Bonner County Daily Bee and is the host of the bi-weekly Geezer Forum on aging issues in Sandpoint.

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