Should We “Put On Our Own Masks Before Assisting Others”?

Should We “Put On Our Own Masks Before Assisting Others”?

By Sam Williamson

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 good things in little doses are bad things in large doses. A little morphine kills your pain. A lot of morphine kills your body.

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.


I am an orthodox believer. At least I long to be. I believe that our cultural moments cloud our beliefs, so we must continually examine our current, fashionable beliefs—which are often unquestioned—in light of scriptural truth.

My father was born in China to Pentecostal missionaries. My mother was born in a farming family in Kalispell, Montana.

I went to University of Michigan and studied Reformation/Enlightenment Intellectual History, philosophy, and Hebrew (and a bit of Greek). I did mission work overseas for three years and felt God say “not now.” So I moved back to Ann Arbor, Michigan and got a job at a software company. (There weren’t many jobs in European Intellectual history.) With two partners, I bought the software company and worked there about 25 years.

In 2007 I heard God call me to writing, speaking, and men’s ministry. I left the business world and began Beliefs of the Heart.

I live in Ann Arbor, Michigan with my wife. I have four grown children and an increasing number of grandchildren.

Be sure to check out Beliefs of the Heart and Sams book – Is Sunday School Destroying Our Kids?

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World Prayr has chosen to be different, starting with teaching others that the pilgrimage all those who have been brought near to God are on is not one about our focusing on what we are doing, or focusing on our sin or anything we are not doing, but focusing on what Christ did in order for us to know transforming grace. We refer to this message as the gospel of grace. We then live this out as a ministry by serving others through counseling, prayer, and sound biblical teachings.

We also differ from most ministries in another key area, working to live out the message of Philippians 2:4 by aggressively promoting other ministries and churches. As a mission team, World Prayr is working to serve those who are disconnected to reconnect them, one soul at a time, to local bodies of believers.

We refer to our team as an “Ohana” made up of many nationalities spread across the globe and within the Protestant faith.

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