What is “essential”? Does it differ for each person? I have been thinking a lot lately about what is essential to me and have realized that, as I’ve gotten older (and arguably wiser), I’ve been shedding the non-essential things in my life without even realizing it. Growth? Perhaps….
According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary the word essential means “absolutely necessary, extremely important”. Other definitions include “fundamental” and “indispensable” but the one that speaks to me is “incapable of removal without destroying the thing itself or its character”. The use of the word “character” is what makes me sit up and take notice. I mean, obviously if we remove a person’s heart or blood they cease to exist but what about the things in our lives that make us who we are? As humans we are more than flesh and bone, each with different desires and needs. Let’s take a look at the forces in our lives that determine what is ESSENTIAL to each and every one of us.
“Where we’ve been isn’t who we are”….Yeah, that’s absolutely NOT true. Have you ever made fun of your parent for something like collecting useless knick-knacks only to find yourself one day surrounded in your own home by Precious Moments figurines? Well, maybe not Precious Moments, but you know what I mean.
My mother had a million wonderful qualities I wish I had inherited but one I am delighted I finally broke free from was her tendency to hoard. Whether it was genetics or the fact that she was raised during the Depression, she could NOT throw anything out. Everything in my childhood home was clean and fairly neat but there was definitely a lot of “stuff”. She attached a great deal of emotion to certain items and told me she felt guilty and conflicted when forced to throw something out. Is this the same instinct that led me to drag a still-in-the-box crock pot through six moves in the ’90s? Spoiler Alert – I was, and remain, a terrible cook and never used the well-traveled crock pot. Regardless, I recognize how my familial tendency for collecting and keeping nonessential items has caused me stress and worry and I continue to fight against this instinct on a daily basis. What was important to our parents and family isn’t always important to us, just as what we are “used to” isn’t necessarily what is good for us. Examining our personal history and then updating our needs and wants is often the key to determining what constitutes a healthy future.
Confession time – I miss smoking cigarettes every day. Even though I occasionally allow myself a “cheat” weekend when I’m with my beloved college friends, Marlboro Ultra Lights are no longer an essential part of my day. I’ve worked hard to build new habits and, although working out doesn’t give me the same charge that sitting and chatting over a smoke and a cocktail used to give me, I know that those new habits are essential to my mental and physical wellbeing. Whether it be putting down the phone and going to bed at a designated time or simply deciding to set aside a half an hour during the day to unwind and breathe, sticking to a plan can force us to develop beneficial new routines that soon become healthy, essential habits.
Just OK? Or Really Great?
I drive a 2017 Chevy Tahoe and, although its not the flashiest of cars, its dependable, safe and gets me comfortably from point A to point B. In order for it to run well, it needs clean, quality gas and oil and requires a tune-up every 25,000 or so miles. Could it get by on low-grade unleaded fuel? Absolutely, but it will last longer if it gets Premium. Similarly, our bodies will last longer if we keep up with our own “tunes ups” and consume quality fuel. It’s true that organic foods cost more in the short term but small changes such as cutting out unprocessed sugar or decreasing our caffeine intake can make a huge difference in the long term. Similarly, committing to a mammogram or colonoscopy according to a schedule recommended by your doctor is a low-cost, easy fix that SHOULD be an essential part of our lives. And, as an added bonus, knowing that you’re taking the responsibility for your own health often cuts down on the stress of “not knowing”. If you decide that feeling great is essential instead of feeling just OK, getting to that spot may take a lot less work than you think.
We often underestimate the importance of doing what makes us truly happy. Often, a feeling of accomplishment or receiving praise from others drives what we prioritize in our lives. Although hearing “good job” from those around us may give us a feeling of contentment, is the actual action that constitutes the”job” making us happy? Answering this question may start with defining what “happiness” is to each of us. Two of the topics discussed above, history and habit, can lead us into thinking we know what makes us happy but self-reflection and unforeseen circumstance often lead us down a different path. What made us happy in our 20s isn’t necessarily what makes us happy in our 40s so pausing and thinking about your direction in life instead of blindly continuing can lead to surprising joys.
When my mother neared the end of her life she decided to move from my childhood home and come live many states away with me and my family. The bravest thing I ever saw her do was determinedly walk out of her house and leave the material things she had once considered “essential” behind. She had thought long and hard about what made her truly happy and recognized that the things she couldn’t live without weren’t tangible and didn’t exist in a box or cabinet. After witnessing that moment I decided to make a concerted effort to continually examine what is essential in my present life. I work to focus on those things each and every day and, although I often fall down on the job, I can honestly say that trying to improve upon those parts of my life has led to a happier and healthier reality.