With all the passengers finally seated with their seat belts securely fastened, the flight attendants secure the overhead bins. Having duly acknowledged the person seated next to you with an awkward smile resembling more a grimace, you then quickly transition to establishing the status quo for the remainder of the flight by pointedly ignoring them in favor of the inflight entertainment system. Delighted to discover that the movie you have been dying to watch is available for your viewing pleasure, you are already enjoying the opening scenes when all of a sudden you are interrupted by an important passenger announcement. You curse silently (hopefully) as you submit, albeit unwillingly, to the safety demonstration video during which you are familiarized with the safety features of the aircraft.

The actors change from time to time but the basic content remains the same: how to correctly buckle and unbuckle a seatbelt, seat backs and tables in the upright locked position during take-off and landing (according to my observations, this is the instruction that people have the most difficulty with), no smoking, electronic devices switched to airplane mode etcetera etcetera - you know the drill.

It is a credit to our species (I think) that we find the safety demonstration video - an overt acknowledgement of the possibility of a terrifying and certain death only thinly veiled by the smiling, calm faces on screen - so mundane. There is one part of the demonstration that never fails to fascinate me however and that is when “in the event of a change in cabin pressure” the mother (or grandmother for the character is inevitably a woman) smilingly secures her own oxygen mask before “assisting” others. 

So why is this footage that I have seen over and over again in several different languages so riveting?

There can be no doubt. It is directly due to the fact that it is one of the RARE circumstances under which I have EVER been instructed by anyone to consider myself first. 

This being said, I am INFINITELY grateful that I haven’t had to practice this “skill” as directed in the passenger announcement and I pray that I never will.

But what about under normal circumstances? When is your responsibility first and foremost to yourself? When should putting oneself before others, including family, be condoned or even encouraged? 

At the very latest, when it becomes dangerous not to. When you find your physical, mental and/or spiritual health being jeopardized by your focus on others. I know that this is easier said than done. It is hard to reverse the momentum of facilitating others. Not only do you have to face your own inertia and internal resistance, you will most likely have to face external resistance ranging from your teenager’s disappointment that you will no longer be making their lunch to outright judgment from complete strangers.

Ideally you will figure out how to put your own mask on first before you reach your limit. To improve your chances of success KEEP THINGS SIMPLE. Begin by setting aside a specific period of time when you already anticipate things being more difficult than usual. For example: if you are a woman, try keeping your schedule of commitments as light as possible during the week preceding your period. Skip the dishes that week (not to mention the grocery shopping and the cooking) by giving yourself and your family the gift of going to the restaurant more often than you normally would consider. It is more expensive but as my lovely husband would always say: it isn’t like eating at home is free. He was referring to the cost of groceries but there can be other “costs” as well.

Many of us already know the consequences of never putting our own masks on first. We also quickly realize that it requires a lot of energy (explaining to the teenager and ignoring the strangers) and this can be discouraging especially if you are already running on fumes.

There needs to be systemic change (legislation) but we can also encourage one another to put our own masks on first. For starters, be honest about your situation. Admitting to others that you are struggling makes you vulnerable and therefore takes courage. Putting yourself first requires even more courage since it is possible that you might “scare” some folks with your “audacity”. For the most part however, your actions will have the extremely positive effect of making people feel less isolated and alone (“I thought I was the only one who found things difficult!”) and may even inspire them to make some changes for themselves.

Change takes time however and we need to be reminded often. Next time you have the opportunity, remind someone of the possibility of putting their own mask on first as tirelessly and as patiently as the flight attendants who remind us all at one point or another to return our seat backs to the upright position for landing.