There is a reason the flight crew is directed to instruct you that, in the case of an emergency, do not be a martyr: put your own mask on before helping someone else. How does the genius of this request not make it past customs? Here are some of the next-level insights it imparts:

1. If you do not help yourself first you may die;

2. If you do not help yourself first I may die;

3. If you do not help yourself first we may both die;

4. If you do not help yourself first you are of no use to anybody;

and finally, 5. If you help yourself first you are in a good position to help others.

The airlines, on behalf of all of us, beg you not to martyr yourself for these reasons. It is clear to them, and hopefully to us all, that if you are gasping for breath your body is going to go into panic, your mind will follow suit, (if, of course, it hasn’t already jumped the gun), and the likelihood of your successfully helping another person decreases exponentially.

The likelihood of helping another, wanting to help another, being able to successfully help another, on the other hand, increases when you are in a stable position. Getting control of yourself, your breath, your mind, and your own life support, is the way toward the mere possibility of you calming someone else, getting their mask on them, or doing anything else if and when called upon to do it.

Why isn’t the airplane rule Golden? – Because all of the above holds true equally on land and sea: your point of entry for an (effective and successful) selfless or unselfish act is to take care of yourself first

Crippling yourself through martyrdom – or simple self-neglect for that matter – does not help anyone. And, assuming you can help yourself, which is it that is selfish: to do so (i.e. to help yourself) or to request – or just wait and make – someone else do it for you? Which, again, is selfish?

When you are genuinely fulfilled, satisfied – or even just well rested – what do you find, that you have more or less time/energy/interest for other people? For those close to you sure – but even for strangers too? Are you not more likely to be short, disinterested, or ruthless with another when you are in need and unfulfilled? And from that place, even if you wanted to, think about what it really is that you have to give, quantity and quality. Can’t we see that we have to offer only what we have? If we are empty, despite our own best intentions, we actually have crap to give (empty + forced giving and taking = the giving and receiving of crap).

We tend not to realize we’re on empty until we completely run out of gas – ill, half insane, or just with the overwhelming urge to lock ourselves away, phone unplugged, completely unavailable to the world. Of course the saving grace would be to realize we’re riding low before we get to this point – but to do this, we have to be allowed to think of ourselves, to care about what we found, to attend to it, and to actively do something about it. I.e.: to be selfish.

Let’s think about this for a minute or two. Read more of On Selfishness. Or Why A Red Rose Is Not Selfish Because It Wants To Be A Red Rose.  Or – great news! – you can now preview selections of the 24-page vignette on our Facebook page.