The Essence of Essential
As human beings, there are certain questions we get asked over and over in life: where are you from? What do you do? Etc. On rare occasions, it comes up in casual conversation, and you get asked: what did you major in in college? This is one of my favorites, because I can tell a lot about people from how they react to my response, when I tell them that my degree is in Ancient Greek and Latin literatures.
Sometimes people are fascinated and want to talk about the "Odyssey." Sometimes people are immediately skeptical: why did you study that? And my answer is usually that Plan A in life for me was to become an academic. People usually aren’t’ surprised by that answer. Sometimes when I tell them I studied dead languages though, people ask: what do you do with that?
Essentially, this is what I do with that…
“Essential” is one of the thousands of words in the English language that derive from various forms of the Latin verb “sum” meaning “to be.” Like in most languages, sum is the most irregular of Latin’s verbs. “Essential” comes from the infinitive form of sum “esse” which literally means “to be.” The suffix comes from a late Latin word “essentialia,” which means the highest state of being. “Essentialia” itself comes from an earlier Latin word “essentia,” which is an abstract noun form of being, that Latin speakers came up with in order to translate the Greek word “ousia” into Latin. “Ouisia” appears in Aristotle and later is important in Eastern Orthodox theology.
In "Metaphysics," Aristotle uses "Ouisia" to refer to essential unqualified qualities of being. What does that mean? Now, I’m a literature person not a philosophy person, so bear with me as I try to explain this. Everything in the world is a being, per Aristotle, and can be defined as either primary or secondary. The secondaries depend on the primaries, so if the first didn’t exist the second couldn’t. “Health” is a primary and “healthy” is a secondary. Nothing could be “healthy” if the being of “health” didn’t exist.
“Ouisia” refers to those primary beings. Another example: when we define color we define it by example. If you were asked what is blue, you’d say: blue is the color of the sky, the color of the ocean, the color of blueberries. But what is blue? While saying things that are blue, we are not defining what blue is without qualification. “Ousia” is the answer to the question of "what is being" without qualification. The unqualified answer of what is blue is “the ousia of blue.”
I really hate philosophy, which is why I decided to focus on language and literature. It provides fascinating complications all its own. As mentioned before, there are too many English words derived from “sum.” Essential. Essence. Sum. Summary. Summation. Consume. Subsume. Resume. Resumé. (The list could go on forever, but I'll stop because I don't want anyone to think I'm goosing my word count.) There are actually more English words derived from Latin words than there are words in the entire Latin lexicon, which is more than a little counterintuitive considering Latin was a living language for twice as long as English has been in use, and English isn’t even primarily a Romance language.
English’s primary source of vocabulary comes from its Germanic roots. Why so much Latin then? Without getting too far into the history, basically English-speakers were conquered or themselves conquered speakers of Latin and its descendent languages many times throughout its history. When this happened, Latin (or later French) would become the language of the upper classes, and English remained the commoners’ language. The elevation of words of Latinate origin persists to this day. Orwell in one of his essays on politics and language, advises authors to pick English words over Latin-rooted words whenever possible in order to speak more clearly and therefore honestly.
And he’s right: if you analyze the thousand most common words in the English language, they are about 80/20 Germanic to Latin. But if you look at the second most thousand common words, the ratio flips and they are 20/80 Germanic to Latin. This is why Latin is proverbially good for S.A.T. prep—fancy words are usually Latinate.
All of this is to say that as a writer, I employ my Latin and Greek major constantly, even if it has never helped me to be employed. In the way that a sociologist or anthropologist by training sees the world through a specific lens, I too have a lens. It’s not the most practical lens, and it can turn me into a bore at parties. When people say “I wonder what the origin of that word is,” and you start to tell them, and their eyes glaze over, you realize that it was probably just a rhetorical question. After all, knowing a word’s origin isn’t essential to understanding its meaning, but it can help you get to its essence.
A Far Simpler Life
All kinds of different people over my life have told me that the three necessities of life, the essentials, if you will, are food, water, and clothing or shelter, and I have no reason to doubt they’re right.
The thing is, though, that not many people I’ve personally known have had to struggle with most of those. I’ve seen lots of people on my TV in other countries who have to get up at dawn and walk a mile or so to a community well or nearby river to grab a few gallons of water, lug it back home, and are reduced to using only the water they can carry for the day’s cooking, cleaning, washing, and drinking, but I don’t think many Americans have to do that.
And, presumably, after fetching the water, they need to walk about as far (probably in the opposite direction) to pick up beans or rice from some market, and after doing all that work merely to survive one more day doesn’t leave a lot of spare time for completing crossword puzzles.
What we need is some sort of pyramid showing the hierarchy of needs if we’re really going to study this essential business.
As my life has changed and my own needs have come and gone, been satisfied and left behind me or found out to be a dead end, I’ve grown closer to thinking that essentials are a lot more relative than I first thought. As an example, this morning at the dog park I spent an hour or so talking with a couple people I really like (and none of the ones I’d just as soon never see again), and, as usual, I felt pretty left out of the conversation.
They live in a town, much like I did for most of my life, one with natural gas piped into their homes, with cable and smartphone access, and with plenty of neighbors to complain about and interact with. I’ve found that a lot of what those people talk about is no longer part of my life, and their focus on many things and features of civilized society I once thought of as essential, are things I’ve learned to live without.
It’s not that I’ve decided to leave those things, it’s more a matter I feel as if I was left behind, unable to keep up, and left behind by society. I’m not complaining, but it amazes me how simple my life has gotten once I stopped planning to spend a day washing the walls of my home or preoccupied with who was going to be the next person voted off the island.
What is essential for me and my existence now is a far cry from all the things I once thought I needed to have to live a full and complete life. It’s true that I worry about many things that most people just take for granted, but I’ve sunk to a level where what’s essential is living to the next day and keeping the things I feel grateful for having.
Without so many distractions, I’ve found no end of things I enjoy and like and that please me, but I no longer feel they’re essential. I’ve lost so much over the years, and yet I’ve still managed to survive, so it’s become obvious that much of what I once thought of as essential realy wasn’t.
Several years ago I had an epiphany about money. It seems I’ve always worried about not having enough, and yet I somehow managed to make it to this later date and stage of life, so all those years worrying were for nothing. I never had what I thought was enough money, but the world showed me that I must have had enough. If I hadn’t, I would have died and it’s pretty obvious to me that that never happened.
I still have tons of crap around my cabin, but I also know the only reason I have all that junk is because I’m too lazy to cart it to the dump. Also, I have a funny feeling that as soon as I get rid of something, I’ll need it.
None of it is essential to my continued life, and most of it isn’t even essential to my continued happiness, even though it gives me pleasure when I look at or use most things. What is essential for me now is to do as little interfereing with the world as I can, to stop imposing my will and my desires, and I think it’s essential for me to just be.
And, to be content.
An introvert who needs her people
This reminds me of the quote from The Little Prince that states - It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye. I love that book, and have shared it with so many students over the years. It speaks a universal truth about the importance of connecting with others. It reminds us that it is not the things in our world that will bring us joy and solace, but rather the people. The connections we make with others is what is essential.
I have been a teacher for 15 years. Before that I worked as a counselor with youth for about 8 years, so in all I have over 20 years of experience working with teenagers in one capacity or another. I found being a teacher in a public school extremely frustrating and considered more than once quitting my job and starting to either tend bar or become a barista. (Sadly, in Arizona, I would have made more money at Starbucks than I did teaching)
I was frustrated not by the students; I did my best work with those kids. I know it, and they would agree. I know without a doubt I changed lives forever. No, it wasn't the teaching that was frustrating, it was the environment in which I was teaching that I found stifling and demeaning. Teachers had a strict role to play in the lives of their students and were never to cross that line. When you think of this in terms of sexual exploitation of a minor, it makes crystal clear sense. However, when you think of it in terms of offering extra help at the local Starbucks on a Saturday to help a student pass Algebra, or making a home visit after school hours because you suspect the lights are off and want to see for yourself that your student is alright, and you are told by your union and your administration to stop such things because you make the other teachers look bad, one begins to question his or her life choices.
Maya Angelou (I think?) said people will forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel. (Or something akin to that - I do hope she will forgive me for butchering her words, but the sentiment remains) I have always wanted my students to feel safe, to feel respected, to know they are seen and loved. Many of them have never gotten that from home. But working where I did, I never felt able to do those things for my students. One reason was the sheer volume of kids in a public school in Arizona. The other reason stemmed from those regulations.
"It is the time you wasted on your rose that makes her so special."
It was not until I started working at Avon that I was able to be the teacher I truly wanted to be. Yes, I have a curriculum I need to use, and I have time constraints, but I also have an environment where they value the relationships between faculty and students. There is nothing untoward about it. We are their parents for 8 months of the year. These boys are away from home - sometimes across the globe from their parents - and it is up to us to nurture and guide them as they become young adults.
THIS is essential to me - being able to be authentic with my students, giving them what I believe they need, without red tape or a union being afraid my commitment to them will make the others look bad.
"You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed."
These relationships do not end when the boy graduates. I am still in daily contact with a few of the boys who I have had the priveledge of mentoring and working with over the years. Not all of them stay that close, but I know I have had a positive impact on their lives. I know that the fact that I can be for them what they need me to be without fear of condemnation or reprisal means I adore going to work every day. I know I am making a positive impact. I know I am changing their lives for the better. I know I am establishing ties with these people that will leave them forever changed. Knowing they know they are loved is invaluable. The lessons they take way from their time with me go beyond how to take good notes and the importance of using a planner. We discuss their hopes and their fears, and they have a safe place to be themselves. I am helping them grow. There is no job more important than that.
What is essential is invisible to the eye.