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

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.

02 masks r1

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.


Question: What do you think? I’d love your comments, in agreement or in disagreement. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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What do YOU think?

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

  1. Good points Sam! It really is extremely difficult to reflect the grace of God, bear one another’s burdens when I’m trying to cover up my own.

  2. Sam, your comments are worth pondering – deeply. I have two sons who are lifeguards, and one of the first things they were trained is that “if you’re going down, you’re not saving anyone.” I think the line between authentic self-care and selfishness is very thin, and requires honest reflection (loved the mirror analogy). Is there some middle ground here? I read somewhere that “… and a second is like it – love your neighbor as yourself.” I also am aware of many who “unselfishly” give of themselves to others to the point that they burn out, and end up becoming resentful, withdrawing their hearts from others simply due to exhaustion… Thoughts?

    • Hi Mike,

      This was a difficult post to write because (as you say), “the line between authentic self-care and selfishness is very thin.”

      I still believe in the general principle that there are many ways we need to put on our own mask first: proper diet, exercise, prayer times, rest, time with God, and personal reflection. And more.

      In my personal experience (from twenty years ago), I was the victim of burnout. But after talking with some friends who were also burnt out, we all acknowledged that part of our burnout came from how we approached our service. Part of us served to care for others, but part of our service came from wanting to feel good about ourselves. Like “I’m the kind of person that really cares for others.”

      I think that service that is really about “us” is the service that causes the deepest burnout. Yes we have to take rest, eat right (etc.), but we exhaust ourselves when we try to earn self-respect.

      We have the most joy and energy when we completely know we are loved and excepted, and we work out of a fullness rather than an emptiness.

      But even when we are working out of fullness, we have human bodies with human needs of food, rest, etc. Remember, God made the Sabbath (rest) for man. Sometimes we simply need rest.

      That’s why I like the “Don your own mask” metaphor, but I’m concerned we sometimes simply take it too far.

      Thanks for your question.

  3. Yes, thank you. Your article reinforces the statement that “the essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less…the freedom of self-forgetfulness.” from Timothy Keller’s The Freedom Of Self-Forgetfulness, page 32 in his treatment of 1 Corinthians 3:21-4:7. Keller stresses the impact that the freedom of Gospel identity should have in not worring about what others think or say about you.

    • Hi Gary,

      How great to hear from someone quoting Tim Keller. I love your comment of “not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less.” Terrific!

      It’s also interesting that the freedom of the Gospel frees us from what other think (or we think) of ourselves.


  4. If you are going to put on anything put on the Character of God, put on the New Man in Colossians 3:12-17 it will naturally displace the old characteristics you haven’t removed and do it gently too. You become what you behold so behold Christ, behold the Father, our Father, be deliberate in your intention, make it a desire to be a mirror of Christ.

    • Great. Yes, let’s put on the New Man.

      Of course we need basic care of diet (etc.); let’s not ignore that. But let’s not grow in narcissism either.

      Christ poured himself out of himself and into us. If we put THAT on, if we remember THAT, our self-striving for self-fulfillment will dissipate.


  5. After posting this article today, I read Oswald Chambers’ reflection for today in My Utmost. I’ll quote it here in the entirety:

    There are times in our lives when our peace is based simply on our own ignorance. But when we are awakened to the realities of life, true inner peace is impossible unless it is received from Jesus. When our Lord speaks peace, He creates peace, because the words that He speaks are always “spirit, and they are life” (John 6:63).

    Have I ever received what Jesus speaks?“. . . My peace I give to you . . .” —a peace that comes from looking into His face and fully understanding and receiving His quiet contentment. Are you severely troubled right now? Are you afraid and confused by the waves and the turbulence God sovereignly allows to enter your life? Have you left no stone of your faith unturned, yet still not found any well of peace, joy, or comfort? Does your life seem completely barren to you? Then look up and receive the quiet contentment of the Lord Jesus. Reflecting His peace is proof that you are right with God, because you are exhibiting the freedom to turn your mind to Him.

    If you are not right with God, you can never turn your mind anywhere but on yourself. Allowing anything to hide the face of Jesus Christ from you either causes you to become troubled or gives you a false sense of security. With regard to the problem that is pressing in on you right now, are you “looking unto Jesus” (Hebrews 12:2) and receiving peace from Him? If so, He will be a gracious blessing of peace exhibited in and through you.

    But if you only try to worry your way out of the problem, you destroy His effectiveness in you, and you deserve whatever you get. We become troubled because we have not been taking Him into account. When a person confers with Jesus Christ, the confusion stops, because there is no confusion in Him.

    Lay everything out before Him, and when you are faced with difficulty, bereavement, and sorrow, listen to Him say, “Let not your heart be troubled . . .” (John 14:27).

    Chambers, Oswald (2010-10-22). My Utmost for His Highest, Updated Edition (p. 239). Discovery House Publishers. Kindle Edition.

  6. Had a post on Facebook once that I use on occasion when I run across someone very self-absorbed. ‘If your journey finally ends and takes you to the center of the Universe, you may just find out, “it ain’t all about you.” ‘ Is this at all pertinent to the great blog I just read? sb

    • That’s a great quote, “It aint’ all about you.”

      I wonder if our society is training everyone to think it’s all about us. And it totally shortcuts the way God made us. We actually find more about us when we forget ourselves and care for another. I’ve found my most profound moments occur when I’m not working on myself.

      I think worship is a great way to get our minds off of ourselves, to look at a great Being, see his majesty, and humble ourselves. It’s only in worship that we find ourselves.

      But … I think it depends on what we’re worshiping.