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Put on your own mask first

“Please remember to put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.” 

I’ve heard that when flying (back in THOSE days) more times than I can count. 

It makes good sense. 

No point trying to save others (particularly those smaller or younger than you, or who might be in trouble in some way) if you’re struggling yourself. 

Of course, it does feel a little backwards - selfish, even. Surely you need to think of others first. Be selfless, sacrificial. Surely in the midst of a crisis or a disaster or a dangerous situation, it’s better to race around helping as many people as you can before you collapse…

...and then you think it through and realise if you do that, you’ll collapse sooner yourself, and will be able to help no one. Not only that, you’ll need extra help from others to get you back on your feet.

You can - I can - be more of a help if we’ve got our own mask on first. 

I can help many, many more people (or simply help one person faster) when I’ve got my own mask on first.

In a time of crisis and danger and masks, this phrase has cropped up when I’ve been talking about helping others. 

I love helping others. It’s one of the things that actually gives me energy. Particularly connecting people with the help they need in some way - whether it’s me or my company, or someone I trust, or a product they need or a place they want to find. I can be having a really rough day, and then someone says “Hey do you know anyone who…” and I share what I know, and they get all enthusiastic. Or I recommend a book they need to read on a particular topic because it really changed my life or perspective, and they go and read it, and come back and say “That book changed my life, too!” 

It gives me energy. Refreshes me. Gives me a little hope when things are rough. 

So when there’s trouble - or a worldwide global pandemic - and everyone in the whole world needs help…

..I want to help everyone. 

I know that’s not even physically possible. But I want to help as many people I know who are struggling, and...everyone I talk to is struggling. Everyone. There’s not a single person who has this all together. Who has it all sorted and doesn’t need help. (And if they appear that way, they’re either not giving you the whole story, or you just don’t know them well enough to be invited in to how they’re really doing.) 

And I know - technically, clinically, in my head - that it makes sense to put on my own oxygen mask before assisting others. 

But how in the wide world do I do that? 

What does that look like? 

Some people call it ‘self care’, which (unfortunately) has sort of been bastardised to mean “take a hot bubble bath” or “sit and read a book”. 

That’s not really what true care of yourself means, and we know it. 

But the longer we’re in the situation we are in, the more I have realised I have absolutely no idea how to put on my own mask first, and what that truly looks like day after day. 

Because it’s not just a one time disaster. Not an accident or a one time hospital visit or a hard day. It’s day after day after day. Talking to people who are struggling. Hearing of deaths, and seeing graph lines rise, knowing people personally who have died or lost businesses or are wrestling with mental health. Staying inside. Not able to travel. 

And I’m realising all the things I used to rely on to look after myself - quiet time at home, reading, travelling up into the highlands, long walks - have either been taken away or have been repurposed to feel like work. 

Quiet time at home is my life now, and still feels like work. Or any spare moment I have I end up doing some work, just so I don’t have to think too much.

My daily walk, as much as I do appreciate it, feels like a need rather than a want. I’m allowed to go out once a day for exercise, so I have to pick the best time of day to do it, and that’s it. Done for the day. 

Typically I’d jump in the car and zoom up into the Scottish highlands if I needed some wide open spaces, and the beautiful quiet which restores the soul. Or I’d take the weekend on the Isle of Mull. But that, of course, isn’t happening. 

Often reading a good book helps me look after myself, be refreshed. Maybe a business book, something fun, or spiritually refreshing. But my brain is far, far too swirly to be able to read much. 

So how do I actually look after myself? 

How do I put on my own oxygen mask?

How do I ensure this ‘care’ means I’m ready and able to serve others, not just giving up and pulling in and hiding out? 

I don’t really know. 

(Haha, you thought I was going to come to The Answer and you would know, too.)

But I believe I will know. 

I believe all of this is pushing me to figure this out. To know what it looks like to take care of me, even in this. Even when all of what I was sort of relying on without realising it, has been stripped away or stripped back.

I was talking to a friend who is a psychotherapist and has been helping a lot of people work through their mental health struggles right now. And we agreed that all the things which brought us joy, or gave us rest, or helped us take care of ourselves, are being questioned - and that’s a good thing. 

What is it that truly gives you rest, helps you cope? Because it can’t be holidays, or time with extended family, or travel, or going out with friends. Those are beautiful things and worth celebrating. Worth striving for. But they’ve been taken away for a time, and shown to be rather temporary. 

There’s a great Bible verse I love which says, about really difficult challenges, “These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold—though your faith is far more precious than mere gold.”

When gold goes through the fire, the impurities rise to the surface and can be removed. After removing, and removing, and removing, you’re left with the purest, most valuable gold there is. 

We’re all being tested right now. And some of our “impurities” - our impatience, our anger, our fears, what we relied on for hope - are rising to the surface. 

That’s okay. They’re supposed to do that. As they’re skimmed off, you’ll be left with the most valuable version of yourself. 

And that version of yourself is the one who can truly help others. 

How do I put on my own mask first? I’m not entirely sure yet, but I do know it goes far deeper than simply doing something that feels nice for a day or a few hours. It has to. It means the sort of thing which helps me face any of those “impurities”, so they can be skimmed off, so I can be the best version of myself. 

Mask on. 

Able to help others. 


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