In the crashing plane of an unhealthy culture, healthy people place the oxygen mask on themselves first. The Oxygen Mask is a metaphor that represents health: healthy mind, healthy body, healthy soul. The crashing plane is a metaphor that represents an unhealthy, unsustainable culture.
Oxygen is life, literally. Metaphorically, oxygen represents health. Figuratively, it represents freedom. And becoming healthy and free is the fastest way to reach the point where you can distinguish invalid human opinion from valid Universal Law. You must be capable of this distinction before you can decide what to do about the crashing plane.
So, imagine culture is a crashing airplane. We are all on this plane, and the oxygen masks have just been released. What do you do first? Do you put the mask on your daughter, your son, your husband or wife, your sister, the autistic kid sitting next to you? No! You put the mask on yourself first. Why? Because in order to be there for others you must be alive, awake and aware. In order to be there for others, you must have oxygen in your lungs.
You cannot know if the guy two seats away has the courage or the wherewithal to do what needs to be done. And even if you did know, you can’t rely on him. The only person you can control is you. You, and only you, are the one who must make a critical decision. It will be a decision that may or may not sit right with your fellow passengers, but it is a decision that you must make in order to right the plane.
When they pass out at least they’ll be out of your way, so you can save them. You put the oxygen mask on before those less capable, after all.
Putting the oxygen mask on yourself first is the virtue of selfishness. This isn’t a license to be a self-centered egotistical asshole. Not at all. It’s a license to be healthy and free. It’s a license to love yourself, to heal yourself and to forgive yourself so that you can be the kind of person who can love, heal and forgive others.
Once you’ve figured out how to love, how to heal and how to forgive yourself, you free yourself up to figure out what you love to do and what you want to do with your time. Maybe you’ll discover that you don’t have what it takes to right the plane. That’s okay. At least now you know. At least you’re not ignorant to the fact that the plane is crashing. At least now you can figure out what you want to do with the precious little time that you have.
But before you can learn any of that, you need oxygen. So, you must give into the virtue of selfishness and put the oxygen mask on yourself before attempting to help anyone else with their mask. It’s simple logic: You must be breathing, healthy and free in order to keep those less capable breathing, healthy and free.
Here’s the thing: Whether your culture is a crashing plane or not, it’s still wise to put the oxygen mask on. Because, although the crashing plane of culture is correctable, the crashing plane of your life is not. You are going to die. You have from this day until the day you die to live the life you want to live.
Put on your oxygen mask first! You must be able to distinguish invalid human opinion from valid Universal Law. This will require learning how to take things into skeptical consideration, and how to “entertain a thought without accepting it” (Aristotle).
As the great Étienne de La Boétie said, “There are always a few, better endowed than others, who feel the weight of the yoke and cannot restrain themselves from attempting to shake it off: these are the men who never become tamed under subjection and who always cannot prevent themselves from peering about for their natural privileges and from remembering their ancestors and their former ways. These are in fact the men who, possessed of clear minds and far-sighted spirit, are not satisfied, like the brutish mass, to see only what is at their feet, but rather look about them, behind and before, and even recall the things of the past in order to judge those of the future, and compare both with their present condition. These are the ones who, having good minds of their own, have further trained them by study and learning. Even if liberty had entirely perished from the earth, such men would invent it. For them slavery has no satisfactions, no matter how well disguised.”