“And . . . Love your neighbor as yourself.” – Luke 10:27
Having spent many hours on airplanes this past week traveling abroad, I caught myself as usual only half listening to the flight attendants’ obligatory instructions about seatbelts, tray tables, the location of the lavatories, and in particular the part about the oxygen masks coming down from above in case of a loss of cabin pressure. That one always intrigues me, especially when they tell us that if we are traveling with a small child to place the mask on ourselves first before placing it on the child. It seems backwards to me, counterintuitive; for isn’t it our instinct to take care of the child first? Yet, the logic actually makes perfect sense, meaning if we take care of ourselves first we are then much better equipped to take care of the needs of the child.
One of my wife’s friends once suggested that when we pray we should pray for ourselves first. When she shared that idea with me my first impression was much the same as with the oxygen mask and the child. Should we not focus our prayers first and foremost on the needs of others, I questioned? Yet the logic is the same, only by taking care of ourselves first are we equipped to tend to the needs of others.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “I can never be all I ought to be, unless you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be, unless I am all I ought to be.” How do we get to be all we ought to be unless we are generous toward ourselves in body, mind, and spirit? We must have something to give before we can offer it to someone else; otherwise we are of little use. How can we expect to provide oxygen to a child if we are gasping for breath; or how can we offer spiritual intercession for another when our own soul is malnourished?
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” Jesus commanded, “And . . . Love your neighbor as yourself.” But in order to love our neighbor we must also love ourselves, not selfishly but unselfishly. Then and only then are we capable and equipped to serve others, to care for and comfort the sick and the poor, to feed the hungry, provide drink to the thirsty, or to place an oxygen mask on a small child. As Dr. King’s words remind us, “You can never be what you ought to be, unless I am all I ought to be.”