“Make sure to secure your own oxygen mask before assisting others”
Have I really heard this message before? Three flights today, three times stated, and even the first time it hit me. Why? How American. Take care of yourself first. But wait. Take Care of Yourself. Suddenly it sounded to me a bit like “you have to love yourself in order to love others.”
This was especially on my mind after reading a biography of Dorothea Lange by Elizabeth Partridge (her granddaughter, of sorts), called Restless Spirit. Lange lived in an era when women were expected, even if they had enlightened husbands, to not work (only ¼ before WWII of women worked outside the home, and those mostly in the classic female professions – nursing, maid, teacher, etc), and even if they did, big surprise, to still be the primary caregiver for the kids. Oh yes, the kids. Of course there would be kids.
Is it Lange’s fault that she put her family first? Is that even a problem, more interestingly? In the end she wound up shooting photographs of a lot of her family, in the final years when she was home sick with esophageal cancer. She had spent all the time documenting the migrant poor of the Depression, the destitute and dislocated of Japanese internment camps, and finally, at home, she photographed her family, her house, her settings. Always people. Always photographing people. She tried natural abstracts ala her buddy Paul Strand, but that wasn’t to pass.
She traveled a lot toward the end of her life. Would she have taken boats or planes? Did she hear this message, was that even played at that time, in the late 50’s early 60’s? “Do onto others as you want done unto you.” What about doing onto you as you want done onto others?
Oxygen mask is about as essential as self care gets. Make sure you can live to help others, this message now seems to say to me, instead of “save only yourself,” or “save yourself first.” Can you imagine? Someone fixing their kids’ or parents’ or neighbor’s mask, only to pass out on the spot after helping five others first? That same person could help ten if they had only paused to put on their own oxygen. Eleven – they would also help themselves.
Yesterday at a workshop I was teaching a college student asked me about a couple of vows I made casual reference to earlier on in the day. “Are these vows marks of accomplishment,” she asked “or more of commitment?” I explained the refuge vow, when I publicly stated that I thought Buddhism was the sanest, bestest stuff out there and promised to do my best to think first of it whenever I was confused. She nodded. “Sure. It’s a sort of communion, baptism, confirmation.”
“Yeah, that’s analogous,” I said.
“What about the other one?”
“Bodhisattva vow? That’s like the same thing only, um, more,” I replied.
“Well, above all, I have stated that I will help others before myself,” her mother, who had also taken the workshop and who is a recent widow, nodded. A lifelong Polish Catholic. “That’s not exactly it, though. It’s more like – well, we are all interdependent. So if I truly do something to help you, it benefits me, and vice versa.” Both of them nodded.
“Teaching is a great example, right, does that make sense?”
They both smiled. Yes. They had seen how I truly loved teaching, and also that it benefited them.
The truth is that I can’t live without the truth. I’ve become a bit of an addict, even when it gives me an emotional hangover. Lange seemed addicted to the truth, too, even moreso. She had to stop and take pictures of pea pickers. She gave up her family, often, in order to record the roaring woes of other families. I am not saying she neglected her duties – she was born and lived in a time when balancing these two was a rare and difficult harmony. I guess what I am trying to say is that I feel for her struggle, especially as more and more of my peers have kids. How on earth does one do that? Then my friends say to me, “How on earth does one ever understand, truly give over themselves to an understanding of interdependence, without having kids?” I think of Dorothea Lange, who somehow did both. My friends and I smile at each other, for each of us has our own journey. Put on your oxygen mask. It’s going to be a wild ride.