I spend a lot of time on airplanes. The rituals of flight have become second nature for me. When the cabin door closes, I shut down my phone, pick up my New Yorker, and tune out the drone of the crew as they enumerate all of the safety procedures we will allegedly perform with aplomb in the event that our plane begins plummeting toward earth. Folks in those instructional videos always seem so ridiculously peaceful as they're inflating their life vests and grabbing onto their seat cushions for dear life. You'd think they were suiting up for a game of croquet with gin and tonics on the patio.
But recently I heard a rote part of the flight attendant's script as if for the first time. No doubt this will sound familiar:
Oxygen and the air pressure are always being monitored. In the event of a decompression, an oxygen mask will automatically appear in front of you. To start the flow of oxygen, pull the mask towards you. Place it firmly over your nose and mouth, secure the elastic band behind your head, and breathe normally. Although the bag does not inflate, oxygen is flowing to the mask. If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your own mask first, and then assist the other person. Keep your mask on until a uniformed crew member advises you to remove it.
There's an interesting principle here that might have a much wider scope. In the event of an emergency, if I am going to be able to help my neighbours, I first need to put on my own oxygen mask. If I'm going to be able to help the child beside me secure her oxygen mask, I need to first secure my own. What might look like an act of self-regard is actually the condition for being able to care for the other.
Like so many others devoted to seeking the common good of our neighbors, at Cardus we spend our time and energy concerned with renewing and strengthening the social architecture that fosters flourishing for all. Indeed, concern for our neighbors is our raison d'être. You might say we want to help others secure their oxygen masks by also making sure that the oxygen system is working well. Sometimes that means we engage in critique of society. Because we dream of a world where everyone breathes the oxygen of shalom, our work for the common good will sometimes require prophetic critique of our society's failures.
But the flight attendant's instructions might be worth listening to: if we are going to be able to help others, we need to tend to ourselves. We need to secure our own masks first. What might that mean, if we run with the metaphor?
First and foremost, I think it means that we Christians who are quick to offer help to society—pointing out what should be done, showing them how they should put on their masks—need to first tend to ourselves. Judgment begins with the household of God (1 Peter 4:17), and our "helpful" pronouncements about marriage or justice or charity will ring hollow if the church is characterized by divorce, dissension, and greed. We need to recentre ourselves again and again in the good news of Jesus Christ, and breathe deeply the oxygen of the scriptures. If we think we know what society ought to look like, we should first model it by being that "society" that is the City of God, in which the Son is the light. The people of God should reflect the light that dawns with the coming kingdom.
Second, it also means we need to put on our own masks individually. The work of NGOs, nonprofits, and Christian think tanks knows no bounds; it's not like we could ever be finished! But this becomes a dangerous temptation to work incessantly as if we can save the world—as if Jesus was hovering over us, Janet-Jackson-like, asking demandingly, "What have you done for me lately?" But we need to secure our own masks first. Sometimes this is as simple as getting some sleep. It means being sure we are nourished by family and friends, recreation and Sabbath. In many ways it comes down to saying, "No!" You can't say "yes" to everyone else's request for help with their mask if you haven't secured your own. Ultimately, that means trusting the One who breathes into us the Spirit of life.