The last couple months, I’ve been working my way through books that have been patiently waiting their turn on my bookshelf. They were adopted from thrift shops, rescued from the Take It Or Leave It and surrendered to me by friends. One of the volumes I’d been eyeing and finally started is the complete series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.
It feels very serendipitous because I can’t tell you how many parallels I’m seeing between this seemingly fantastical story and our current situation. Bear with me.
In book two, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, the two protagonists are teleported to Ark B, a spaceship that is carrying tens of thousands of citizens of a supposedly doomed planet to a new planet they plan to colonize. The captain explains that this is the first of three ships to set off to the new land. The two other ships, Ark A, carrying the planet’s leaders and visionaries, and Art C, carrying the skilled labor force, will be close behind them.
What the protagonists later deduce is that the Ark B passengers, who are middle managers, marketing experts, hairdressers (ie. non-essential workers), have been duped into voluntarily abandoning their perfectly habitable planet. The residents back on their home planet had cleverly and successfully cut out the middle(wo)men.
Jumping back to our reality, when the pandemic arrived in the US and Stay-at-Home orders were being issued across the country, it felt like many of us were handed boarding passes for Ark B. We were told to stay home for the protection of our essential workers.
The pandemic is not a clever ruse (contrary to what you might hear on Info Wars and Fox News), but it did reveal a similar situation. To everyone’s bewilderment, a substantial portion of us are “non-essential.”
It has created a national conversation around what it means to be “essential” in our workforce and our economy. We can all agree that medical workers are essential. And despite graying roots and botched buzz cuts, I think we can agree that hairdressers are not essential. But what about everything else?
Obviously, we’re going be influenced by our own biases. During a recent select board meeting, general contractors said they needed to get back to work because the inground pools they were installing posed a safety hazard if they were left unfinished. The vice-president of a pest control company in Michigan told the New York Times that if he can’t continue to operate, he will have to layoff his employees and deprive dozens of families of their incomes.
In moments of scarcity and uncertainty, it is psychologically difficult to see things from a wider perspective. When our livelihoods are at stake, it makes sense that we emphasize the importance our industry. Our need to cling to and defend what’s ours can blind us to the bigger picture.
Valued vs. Essential
I’m not someone who spends a lot of time on my hair. I get a haircut once, maybe twice a year. Last year, I had the chance to be a “model” in a workshop for hairdressers at a local salon. Not only did I get a free wash and cut, I got to follow along as the instructor demonstrated a layering technique. Color me humbled! I had NO idea the complexity and training that went into giving someone a great haircut. That being said, it doesn’t change my belief that it is a non-essential industry.
Our culture has progressively come to count on caregivers to do the heavy lifting in elder care. These workers make meals, bath their clients, empty their bedpans, and keep the clients safe from broken hips and other injuries. They are the difference between a senior citizen living their final years with dignity or fading into neglect and invisibility. And yet many caregivers get paid minimum wage with no health insurance and no job security. They are deemed essential, but not valued.
When I’m elderly, and I need someone to care for me, I hope that our culture has evolved enough that the person taking me to the bathroom, running my errands and keeping me safe, is compensated in a way that reflects the importance of the job. I’m sure I’m not the first person to ask this, but I’ll ask it anyway. How can we expect frontline workers to take care of us properly, if they can’t even take care of themselves properly?
When we look deeper, this pandemic is revealing that our society has been investing our dollars into non-essential industries that we overvalue and pinching our pennies when it comes to essential industries that we undervalue.
You ARE essential. How?
Many people consider life coaching to be a luxury. Something for people with the means to pay for it. And to be honest, I agree with that. Even though I believe my work changes lives and makes a difference in my community, I would never suggest it has the same importance of a nurse or a firefighter.
I am not here to declare whose profession is essential and whose is not. Instead, I challenge you to ask some questions of yourself:
How do I become a passenger of Ark A or Ark C?
What changes can I make to my job/industry/lifestyle to be more “essential”?
Who doesn’t benefit from what I do?
Who benefits from what I do?
Is what I do essential to the community in which I live?