You probably don’t want to read today’s article.
About twenty years ago, I was having some personal struggles, so I visited a Christian counselor. After listening to my life’s story, the counselor reminded me of the instructions flight attendants offer before every flight,
“In the event of a sudden loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will fall.” Then they advise,
“Please put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.”
And their advice makes sense. At thirty-seven thousand feet, we’ll lose consciousness in twenty to thirty seconds. We need to put on our own oxygen mask first, or we’ll black out before we get a chance to help anyone else.
So I followed my counselor’s advice and took some time to put on my own mask. Can you guess what happened? Life got worse. Much worse. Especially for those around me. My biggest problem wasn’t too little self-concern; my problem was too much self-concern.
I bet yours is too. (Hey, I warned you that this article wouldn’t be any fun.)
The right dosage
The advice (to don our own masks first) makes sense in an airplane accident. But how far should we extend the metaphor? I would extend it to include reasonable diet, exercise, and prayer. Maybe even sensible vacations, time away with God, and personal reflection.
But good things in little doses are bad things in large doses. A little morphine kills your pain. A lot of morphine kills your body. A reasonable attention to a diet is smart. An obsession with diet is food-idolatry, a subtle, insidious form of gluttony.
How soon does “donning our own masks first” simply become selfishness? Real soon. When I took time to put on my own mask first, I became increasingly self-aware; self-aware of my needs, self-aware of insults made by friends, and self-aware of all my hard work for others.
In short, I became obsessively self-focused. But I didn’t see it in me until I saw it in a friend.
It’s always easier to see it in another
Around that time, I spoke with a man whose daughter had sent him a letter that basically said, “Dad, you are a jerk.” He was dismayed and a bit defensive. “Can’t she see,” he moaned, “I’m just trying to figure myself out? I want to help her, but I’ve got to help myself first.”
I asked why his daughter would write something so harsh. He explained that his own father had been harsh and distant, quick to point out mistakes and slow to affirm.
So I asked what he had specifically done to make his daughter so angry. He told me of a time as a kid that he set up the family tent and invited a few friends for a sleepover. But he and his friends rough-housed a bit and tore the tent. His father beat him in front of his friends.
From all I could tell, this man’s childhood had been sad. But whenever I asked how his behavior harmed his daughter, his response was another story of how his own father mistreated him.
He couldn’t (or wouldn’t) bring himself to tell the story of his own mistreatment of his daughter. He only talked about himself. He was obsessed with the wrongs done to him and oblivious of the wrongs he inflicted on others.
Mirrors are useful tools, even when we don’t like what we see. In this man, I didn’t like what I saw. Me.
How do we know?
If we take the “Don your own mask first” metaphor too far, we create an intense focus on ourselves. But we don’t need more self-focus. We need more self-forgetfulness.
The purpose of the mask metaphor is to equip us to care for others. How do we know when our masks are merely masking our self-centeredness? What are signs of hyper self-awareness?
- Self-pity. Obsession with ourselves breeds pity for self. It’s a gangrene that kills.
- Self-praise. Increased self-awareness heightens our mindfulness of our great service to others. We congratulate ourselves on a job well done. Often. (Or we sulk in self-pity.)
- Self-service. When our notice of ourselves increases, our notice of our own needs also grows. And we tend to care for the needs that are in the forefront of our minds. Ours.
- Circumstantial-domination. A focus on ourselves leads to a focus on the circumstances of our situations. Instead of seeing God, we see a bunch of Goliaths. And they rule us.
- We talk too much. When our thought-life is filled with ourselves, we become infatuated with our answers, our ideas, and our stories. We miss the brilliance in others.
Yikes! I warned you, didn’t I?
But there is hope
The only way to find ourselves is to lose ourselves. Rather than remembering ourselves more, let’s learn to forget ourselves. Sometimes the best thing to do with masks is remove them.
The world has trained us (apparently so has the airline industry) to think too much about ourselves. We can re-train our brains, with God’s help, to look outside more than inside. God doesn’t help those who help themselves, except to help them forget themselves. Let’s:
- Increase our self-awareness of our hyper self-awareness.
- Stir up curiosity about the people around us. A good start is to ask them questions.
- Look to God instead of ourselves. He really is bigger than Goliath; he cares for us even more than we do; and he’s better prepared to help us than we are.
But in the case of a sudden loss of cabin pressure, its fine to pray that your pilots don their own masks first.