What is Essential?

Living alone in the country takes social-distancing to a whole new level and yesterday morning I found myself feeling the effects of an over-active mind in an uncertain time. I am an introvert by nature and in the beginning I truly believed isolation would be a piece of cake for me, but there I was, bordering on panic and not knowing which way to turn. Now wait a minute I thought; how can this be? I’m supposed to be the strong one. I’m the one other people call when they need help…


The truth is I’m just as human as the next guy, and just as susceptible to getting mugged in the dark ally of my thoughts as anyone else. Thankfully though, I do have some tools that I’ve picked up along the way, and I knew it was time to step back and tend to my own needs. So I took the day off. I shut down everything that was non-essential – the news, Facebook, Zoom Meetings, even my email, and I stayed open only to my phone and text messages – just in case.


Living on a farm does have its advantages in times like these. If I want to hike all I have to do is open my door and start walking. There is a big old hill right behind my house, and climbing it requires all of my concentration, so Elijah and I started to climb. Actually, for Elijah, it was more like a quick sprint while looking back at me impatiently as if to say “come on lady,” but in this case the importance of paying attention to where I was going while trying to pace myself cannot be overstated. Because it forced me to be present and accounted for in the immediate moment, and it is in the immediate moment that everything suddenly becomes not only manageable, but deliciously sacred and instructive.


As I huffed my way up the hill, I couldn’t help but think about Jesus in the wilderness for 40 days facing down all of his demons, and before I knew it I was reflecting on one of the biggest spiritual questions of all times, and that is, what is really essential? We hear that word a lot these days as we are advised to limit ourselves to essential travel, essential contact, essential shopping, essential doctor visits, and for most of us that causes panic. We are not used to limiting ourselves to the essentials; so much so that many of us have trouble even defining what is actually essential and what is not. We think that if we stock up on enough rice, beans and toilet paper to last 10 years we might meet our essential needs, but maybe we should plan on 15 – just in case.


So what is truly essential, I wondered as I watched Elijah joyously sprinting across the open fields; what are the things I cannot live without? As it turns out the list is pretty short, but if you add the word “comfortably” to the question, the list becomes infinite. And “comfortably” is the word we keep trying to hang on to.


The fields right now are completely barren. The only evidence of life lies in the stubble of yesteryear’s corn and beans. The gnarly branches of the trees stand in stark contrast to the grey skies. There is nothing else – could I survive if this were all I had?


This is that time of year when we are usually poised on the brink of hope. Easter and the promise of resurrection lie just over the next hill, and we know we can count on renewal. We know that soon daffodils and jonquils will begin probing the surface of the earth, and that the dogwoods will begin to blossom into new life. We know that the entrance of the tomb will stand open in silent testimony to victory over death. But this year, even as new life is beginning to slowly emerge, the death toll continues to rise and we are left to ponder the question, what is essential?


I hope this is a question that we will continue to carry with us for a long time to come. Even after the pandemic is over, I hope we can come to appreciate what a gift this question really is. I hope we can learn to climb the difficult hills of our lives, the ones that force us to slow down and be present only to the moment, and I hope we can learn to travel lightly. Because as I reached the top of my own hill yesterday, I came to realize that what was most essential to me in that moment - was less…


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