Tuesday, June 09, 2009

“Make sure to secure your own oxygen mask before assisting others"

“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.

“How so?”

“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.


  1. Thanks, Miriam. Wise words, again.

    It's a remarkable coincidence with a facebook chat I had a half an hour ago with a young friend in England. After spending a year abroad, in Germany, she has moved back in with her mother who is dying from a brain tumor and who she is taking care of - with all the practical difficulties and emotional stress resting mainly on her. Her boyfriend who is German is still in Germany, he will maybe follow to England in Summer, but reluctantly. Her brother who lives in the same house is depressive and can't put up with the situation. Her father is in the process of getting back together with his last wife (not her mother) who has bone cancer and who she has a very tense relationship with. Anyway, at one point she said she's thinking about getting counseling. And that she's afraid her boyfriend might get fed up with her if she doesn't learn to be more emotionally stable.

    My immediate reaction was that this shouldn't be the point. "Don't do it for him. Do it for yourself, in the first place. Everything else will follow."

    She said that sounded kind of Buddhist, and kind of wise. But the thing is that I truly believe in it. If you're at peace with yourself, everything else will eventually fall into place. We often don't know how, or when, but it's important to make a good foundation for it. And that is something we can only do by taking good care of ourselves. First.

    I'm rambling again. Sorry. But I just felt this connection to the conversation I had a few minutes ago, which is still in my thoughts.

    Anyway. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Not rambling at all, Gabi! Really fits. I think in some ways, with a situation like this in particular as you describe it, it doesn't matter if she goes to counseling to help them or her - it can't help but benefit her! In this way a wise teacher once told me that you always benefit others if you truly benefit yourself AND if you are TRULY benefitting others you ALSO benefit yourself.

    That having been said, hell yeah girl, good advice. Taking care of ourselves should never have to be disguised in the form of pleasing others.