Who Really Is Essential?
By Patrick Winn
As COVID-19 requires redefining our values and their levels of importance, the words “essential” and “non-essential” challenge us to evaluate where they land on the definitional spectrum. 
Those terms sound familiar because they get tossed around when government shuts down for short or long stretches if Congress can’t pass a budget, or reach agreement with the White House on a veto-proof spending plan. 
We hear that all “non-essential” public employees need to stay home when there’s no authorization to pay their salaries, even as we wonder how someone working for taxpayers gets relegated to and paid for “non-essential work.” 
But when wider swaths of the workforce are told they are non-essential, the first attributes of value and respect in a workplace suddenly disappear. Such is the impact of sustained shelter-in-place directives. It hurts, and wise “non-dispensable” employees worry that the next wave of lay-offs, compensation cuts and furloughs will expand the “non-essential” definition.
If ever tempted to believe a former colleague’s superficial accolade of “How will we ever get along without you?” perhaps this time at home can be used to see how true that compliment really is. In doing so, there are really only two questions that provide an answer: First, who did my job before I got here? And, second, when I retire or die, who will do my job when I’m no longer here? 
Actually, the real question to contemplate is, “How did I get along without that job?” If work is the only source of dignity and status as well as a paycheck, it’s time to figure out how the job has come to define personal value rather than using one’s personal value to define the job. 
Unless one works alone — barbers, marriage counselors, authors, dog walkers — social interaction is inherent in work, and colleagues help us define our worth. To say we’re “indispensable,” is simply not accurate. 
Presidents, CEOs, and athletes come and go, but their governments, companies and teams continue. But to be told we’re “dispensable” is an affront to the dignity that work gives us and the value that we return to colleagues, clients, students or customers.
Ultimately, none of us is indispensable, except to our own existence. But since none of us will survive this physical life, that measure of indispensability is incomplete. If we hear that work is the sole measure of our worth, we denigrate those who find purpose and satisfaction in prayer and contemplation. 
To help address those questions and values, take a look at what you’ve been doing while sheltering in place. Some who are accurately portrayed as heroes receive some passing media-based thank-you. Others quietly find dignity in volunteering for the poor, the hungry, and the lonely who suffer the most during the pandemic. 
And please take another look at the beatitudes. They offer plenty of chances to improve self and community while defying floor wax-deep definitions of essential and non-essential. 
To God, we are all essential. Blessed are ... Amen.