Living in the Essential

In the past two months, I think I’ve heard, read, and said the word essential more times than I did in all my pre-COVID-19 years combined. It will be interesting to see if and how the word essential will occupy a more everyday place in our lexicon after all this is over.

For the time being, we seem to have gained a new appreciation and respect for that which is essential and for those who have been deemed essential. As we witness an economy long supported by the consumption of nonessential commodities begin to crumble after only a few weeks of pressure, we question the value of the nonessential.

And perhaps rightly so. Our society and our very lives feel as if they’re being stripped down to the essentials, and it at times feels like a very good thing.

And yet, those of us who have the privilege of riding out stay-at-home and safer-at-home orders from the comfort of our own homes are also recognizing that we deeply crave the nonessential. We deeply desire to go get our hair cut and perhaps try bangs for the first time—ya know, mix it up! We desire to go watch a movie in a cold, dark theater or go watch a baseball game at a crowded stadium. We desire to get a bite to eat from our favorite restaurant.

On one hand, we desire to do so many nonessential things because we have been taught that consuming the latest and greatest items and experiences will bring us happiness. We feel this misleading lesson to be particularly true in the midst of our quarantined lives. On the other hand, we desire to do these nonessential activities because in them lie essential good: a sense of belonging, beauty, and presence. While this good may or may not be essential for us to survive, much of it is essential for us to thrive.

So what lesson are we learning? Are we learning that we need to do away with the nonessential altogether? Or are we learning to re-prioritize and balance, to recognize that some non essentials are more important than others? That we have simply taken our infatuation with consuming the nonessential a bit too far?

And where is God in this?

At Dry Bones, we spend a lot of time providing people with things that are essential for survival on the streets: food, sleeping bags, blankets, and socks, among other things. We also spend a lot of time engaging in nonessential activities: bowling, going to the movies, playing board games, and doing puzzles. During these difficult times, the essential continues to hold a crucial place in our work. Our friends seeking survival on the streets need reliable sources of food now more than ever. And yet, the nonessential continues to assert itself as crucial to our work as well. Those we connect with on the streets say they miss gathering with others in our office space. They miss hanging out and playing games. They miss the belonging, beauty, and presence they experience in the nonessential.

Over the past two months, our friends have reminded me that life is found in both the essential and the nonessential. They have reminded me that God is found in both of these places as well, in the essential and the nonessential, in the sacred and the profane.

As we continue to live in a COVID-19 world, may we reclaim a reverence for the essential. And may we do so without forgetting the life that lies within the nonessential—not the fake life offered by consumerism but the true life offered by belonging, beauty, and presence.