Tuesday, December 11, 2007


Please Put on Your Own Oxygen Mask First

Originally published in the New York Mills Herald on November 14, 2007 and credited to my alternate identity, Elisa Korentayer.

I just returned from a ten-day excursion to Scotland to visit an old college friend. Amber is a professor of philosophy at St. Andrews University, and I had been threatening to visit her for years. It was only when she told me she was about to move that I finally cashed in my frequent flyer miles and started researching the Scottish highlands.

During my visit, we drove to the Isle of Skye and saw most of the regions of Scotland on the way there and back. The trip was full of visual indulgences: yawning inlets interrupting towering cliffs, landscapes more cloud than mountain, glimmering black lakes reflecting orange slopes of autumn-hued heather.

Despite the dramatic setting, what lingers most from my journey was the perspective it gave me on my life in Minnesota and the importance of taking care of my own needs. By giving myself the gift of a trip I’ve wanted to take for years, I was able to come to terms with my new life.

The benefit of meeting my own needs was difficult for me to acknowledge. While I was deciding to go on my trip, and even while I was in Scotland, I couldn’t shake a lingering feeling of guilt. Who am I to deserve a trip to Scotland? Surprisingly, it wasn’t the beautiful Scottish countryside that gave me peace from the badgering of my own mind; it was the air travel.

My time in Scotland was bracketed by two 24-hour transit-periods. Twenty-four hours of six flights and four layovers was what it took to for me to get from Minnesota to Scotland and back on Northwest airlines. On each of the six flights, I tried to tune out the flight attendants’ safety briefing, having heard it all before. But each time the same phrase struck me: “In the case of a change in cabin pressure, please put on your own oxygen mask first.”

Taking care of yourself before helping someone else runs counter to almost everything we are taught about how to behave in society. It seems to be an affront to etiquette, notions of generosity, and the Golden Rule. In places where graciousness and “help your neighbor” sentiment run as true as they do in Minnesotan small towns, I think that the act of looking after oneself first can be seen as selfishness. Here, where once pioneers survived by the grace of their neighbors, selfishness is a sin. From experience, I’ve learned that it’s important to acknowledge the distinction between “selfish” and “self-respecting.”

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary online, the word ‘selfish’ is defined as:

-concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself: seeking or concentrating on one's own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others;
arising from concern with one's own welfare or advantage in disregard of others

-From these definitions, it’s clear that selfishness is characterized by a deliberate lack of consideration for others. In fact, the key to selfishness is in this blatant disregard for others.

On the other hand, self-respect is characterized by a compassionate concern with one’s own humanity. Merriam-Webster defines self-respect as “a proper respect for oneself as a human being.” To me, self-respect means that I must honor myself by meeting my own needs. Only by giving myself what I need am I able to be the best person I can be. And making myself the best person I can be makes me best able to meet the needs of others.

When I haven’t taken care of myself, I’m of no use in the world. When I haven’t had enough sleep or nutritious food, all I can do is think about getting what I want, no matter whose toes I step on. Without self-respect, I can’t be a decent or caring person to anyone else. I am also no fun to be around. I am demanding and anxious. I am frustrated and frustrating. I am the last person I would want to spend time with, and I certainly wouldn’t want to inflict this version of me on others. So, the best thing I can do for the world is to start by taking care of myself. And sometimes this means doing things for myself that may appear selfish to others.

In retrospect, taking time to go far away and reconnect with an old friend was what I needed to do to help me see my life in Minnesota more clearly. Going to Scotland allowed me to appreciate that I am building friendships, establishing roots, and creating a life in this new place. The trip was an extravagance, but it was also a way of respecting my own needs. And now that I have, I can stop stressing about finding my place in this new community and start contributing to it.

I had to hear the flight attendants’ speech six times to understand this. It took the context of instructions in case of flight emergency to make the message starkly clear: We all need to take care of ourselves first.

So, from my inner flight attendant to yours, let me remind you to please put on your own oxygen mask first.

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