What does it mean to be essential? | Inquirer Opinion
Just Thinking

What does it mean to be essential?

For two years and counting, the world has been asked to draw a line in the sand. On one side lies the essential and, on the other, the expendable.

Foisted into a world of face masks and the faceless foe, we have been force-fed a salad of quarantine measures and what seems like a bottomless bowl of COVID-19 Greek-alphabet soup.


A new vocabulary was created to help us cope with a disease that, until today, we struggle to fully understand. Early into the pandemic, terms like “herd immunity,” “social distancing,” and the “new normal” have headlined newspapers and newsfeeds alike, and have since become common parlance for the armchair experts among us.

An entire lexicon has exploded into existence. But if there were only one term that would underlie the code of conduct in COVID life, it is “essential.”


The word could mean a million things at a single instance. To the state, it meant designating certain services as “essential work”—in what at times seemed like nothing more than a euphemism for the sacrificial lamb sent out into the very world we were told to isolate from. To others, it meant a drastic increase in handwashing to the tune of “Happy Birthday.” Perhaps to a fewer some, it meant limiting social interactions to tiny but permeable bubbles.

To me, it was at times some of these all at once. But in its own special way, it was also so much more.

Amidst the global pandemic, socially distanced and physically isolated, I did what I do best: I reflected. I withdrew into my mind, and I asked myself a simple question: What does it mean to be essential?

Like many of my colleagues, one of the first things that came to mind was my career. Fresh out of my Juris Doctor, I matriculated on both ends of Oxbridge to finish my graduate studies while juggling work with public interest sectors in the Philippines and abroad. Life was a rat race I was determined to win and, under the tyranny of meritocracy, it was all too easy to overlook how there is so much more to our days on this earth than CVs and LinkedIn profiles.

Alas, at times, we lose sight of what truly matters. But a pandemic has its way of putting things in perspective. And that’s when it hit me: In my attempt to find the right answer to my question, I came to realize I was asking the wrong one. “Essential” is not only a “what.” It is a “who.”

When the world was made to strip life down to the essentials, I found myself thinking less about what was indispensable to life and more about who is indispensable to a life worth living. And just like that, the hitherto professional priority fell to the peripheral, and I came to what will undoubtedly be the most important decision of my life. I decided to propose.

I asked for my fiancée Isabel’s hand in marriage on April 9, 2021—coincidentally, albeit befittingly, the “Araw ng Kagitingan” (the Day of Valor). And to my greatest delight, she actually said yes and hasn’t changed her mind since (at least not yet).


If it isn’t obvious, dear reader, this week’s think piece is more than just an article. It is a love letter. It is the final note written with my left fourth finger unwrapped in unity’s eternal circle. It is a confession where mind and heart meet and are laid bare.

So allow me to rephrase the original question: Who is essential? To me, the answer has never been clearer: She is.

They say there are two types of people in this world. One who meticulously packs her bags a week before a vacation, and the other who simply stuffs his backpack the day of the flight. Once in a blue moon, it is said the stars align, the sun rises, and these two people marry.

Ladies and gentlemen, today is that day.

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TAGS: essential, Just Thinking, Raphael A. Pangalangan
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