Essential. The word has Latin roots, but it is often spoken with the sort of forceful Anglo-Saxon intonation usually reserved for those four-letter words that convey shock or emphasis. “
It’s essential that we make budget this quarter”
implies that bad stuff happens if we do not. That second syllable – “sen” – is shouted out amid a fine spray of saliva, through curled lips. Yes, that beautiful Latin word
reminiscent of the soul of things, like essential oils, is now firmly co-opted into the language of exacting business efficiency. Among the spreadsheets, the wrinkled shirts, the four timezones, the red-eye flights, the sweat and testosterone of business today, the word “essential” commands respect. It gets noticed. It has currency and agency. It is the alpha male.
Of course, the word has taken on renewed importance recently as, impelled by COVID-19, governments have deemed certain people not essential. Those so designated have been, in many cases, deprived of the ability to make a living and confined to their homes, allowing the essential workers to go about their business. There was no alternative, at least none that I can see, and the measures taken seem to have had a positive impact on the spread of disease. What, though, of the impact on society of such a clear demarcation and identification of the non-essential worker? There is an old English admonition not to add insult to injury, and we now see a literal example of it: the injury of forced unemployment being multiplied by the insult of being labeled not essential. It is hard to recall such a social sorting process carried out on such a global scale. While the logic of the quarantine and distancing programs is well supported, the social and psychological impact may linger long after the vaccine has been developed and the millions of personal and business bankruptcies have been worked out.
Many of the non-essential workers are visiting food pantries for the first time in their lives. They are skipping mortgage and car payments and relying on the whims of the online benefits claim system to make ends meet. We may be all in it together, as a popular meme goes, but some are more in it than others. Remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? The theory says that basic human needs like food, drink, safety, and security have to be taken care of first before a person can enjoy higher order needs like friendship, prestige, and creative actualization. It makes intuitive sense, right? And you can see how this crisis has taken an axe to many people’s hierarchy of needs. Although, you can point to the likes of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who spent most of his adult life imprisoned in the Soviet gulag, starving, cold, tortured, and unable to trust anyone. None of his needs were met, higher or lower, but while in the gulag, he still managed to write a book that changed the world. Of course, there were millions of inmates and one Solzhenitsyn. Many zeks (as the inmates were called) just gave up, curled up and died.
Now look, this is the United States (or Europe or wherever you happen to be reading) and, hopefully, no one is going to starve. But one could argue a longer lasting harm has been done. When the waitress or the barber or the painter is labeled non-essential, then bankrupted, while the TV show host or marketing executive – holed up in the second home in the Hamptons so as not to catch the virus – there is a little more social tension than there was three months ago. That can’t be undone, but what about the next three months or three years? A federal program to restore respect and esteem? Hopefully not, but how about a personal program to recognize the human
of people who are not in your social or professional circle. When was the last time you exchanged anything more than an insincere, pro-forma pleasantry with t
he waitress who brought you your scrambled eggs at the diner? Those eggs are essential to you and so is she. Recognize her. Notice her as a human being. Essential gets noticed. It is the alpha male, even when female. Spread the money around if you like, but let’s really spread that alpha around.