It’s been floating around for years, but at the moment it feels like it’s ‘EVERYWHERE’.

‘Put on your own oxygen mask first.’

It’s a great metaphor – it’s visual, and anyone who’s ridden on an airplane will have heard it.

People say this particularly to encourage people who struggle making space for self-care to take it, but it often doesn’t work. It certainly doesn’t for me.

It just annoys me. The way that it is deployed feels like the new version of ‘greed is good’. I’m not debating that taking time to consider our own feelings and needs is essential, but the way this dictum is bandied about seems to be in a really self-centered way. People say it with a tome that feels more akin to ‘stay in your own bubble and just worry about your oxygen.’

I think why it doesn’t seem to work and drives me so bonkers isn’t the core idea, but the fact that people leave off the second half.

‘Put on your own oxygen mask before helping someone else.’

The point of putting on your oxygen mask is not to nonchalantly sit there leafing through a magazine while someone next to you struggles to breathe. It’s to secure your own oxygen supply to then enable you to turn and help others.

And honestly, I think a lot more people who struggle to justify taking the time they need to look after themselves would find it a lot easier if we focused on using the whole phrase:

‘Put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.’

Let’s remember why the airlines need to say this. It’s because the human instinct is so strong to look after the people that we care about, that we want to turn to helping them first before we care for ourselves.

That impulse is actually a beautiful thing. It is generous and compassionate.

The problem is that it isn’t actually safe or good – either for yourself of the person you are helping.

Yes, you have to ensure your own well-being first, but it doesn’t mean you have to forget about the other people.

Maybe this just reveals a flaw in my own thinking, but I feel like it gets talked about as a binary choice – either put on your own oxygen mask, OR help someone else.

When really, it is an AND. Put on your own oxygen mask AND help others. Ideally, not just the person you love sat next to you. But the person across the aisle who is panicking, or who can’t quite reach, or who is travelling miles above the earth alone.

We struggle to choose ourselves because it feels like a betrayal of the humanity that we have nourished, and it is hard to tease out what is best when needs are in conflict, but the best thing is always to look for the AND.

I feel like the task of adulthood – or maybe just personhood – is much more like a scale.

To be able to hold in one hand, our own needs. And in the other hand, someone else’s. And to try to find the balance between them.

Things will swing out of sync – sometimes by a little, sometimes by a lot, but the goal is to look for the balance.

That seems to me what is getting lost in the current political climate. I’ve been so heartbroken to see the recent Supreme Court decisions that are gutting human rights.

Whence comes this insistence on dictating how others live? Why is it so hard to try to make equal space for our own needs AND someone else’s?

This seems like it should be a hallmark of community and our approach to the world.

There are of course some people who can’t get negotiated with – who only want to hold out their own hand without any room for complexity. There are places where this attitude enables violence and inequality that cannot be tolerated.

But in the places where there are no easy answers, which it seems like is much of life, I feel like the right approach is like this:

To let our own bodies be the scale, finding the tipping point between our own two hands outstretched in different directions. There we can hold with love our own needs. And hold with respect those of others. And to do our absolute best to let them both matter and to find the balance.

Oxygen masks for everyone!

Photo by Suhyeon Choi on Unsplash