What Is Essential?

The beginning of the school year is a natural time to take stock of what lies ahead. Demands mount (or are about to). Seasonal free time from the summer diminishes.

How can we stay afloat? How can we avoid dropping balls as challenges ramp up?

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. But, a helpful question to begin asking regularly is “What is essential?”

AltArrow on factory wall by Hello I’m Nik

The question “What is essential?” pushes us in the direction of minimizing the excess in life. But, it does so in a way that also asks us to keep hold of what holds higher priority.

Rather than trying to fit more and more into a life with less and less margin, the question “What is essential?” asks us to reckon with the reality of our limits—both as humans in general and as particular humans with particular things that are important to us.

In his book Essentialism, Greg McKeown reflects,

When we try to do it all and have it all, we find ourselves making trade-offs at the margins that we would never take on as our intentional strategy. When we don’t purposefully and deliberately choose where to focus our energies and time, other people … will choose for us, and before long, we’ll have lost sight of everything that is meaningful and important. We can either make our choices deliberately or allow other people’s agendas to control our lives. (16)

Of course, some of what we should choose deliberately is connecting with, enjoy relationships with, and serving our families, close friends, and others with whom we can engage in mercy.

The point isn’t that we shouldn’t do this. But for instance, the quite definite forces in the modern “attention economy” have very certain “agendas” that we can unwittingly “allow … to control our lives” in ways we wouldn’t choose if we were being deliberate.

And just by virtue of faithfulness to whatever calling we find on our lives or in a particular season, it behooves us to be mindful about the choices that we make and what we allow to become a priority such that it excludes or squeezes other important relationships, activities, and practices.

Whatever we’re called to do in any circumstance, it pretty safely isn’t, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, to be “always forced to decide between alternatives [we] have not chosen” because we’ve not exercised our responsibility to live intentionally (Prisoner for God, 175). So, as we move into another academic year, let’s be mindful of what we allow ourselves to prioritize and intentional about centralizing what lets us live faithfully to whatever calling we have.

What questions or criteria do you find helpful in minimizing the non-essential?

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