Fasten your own mask first, and only then help children or others.

We've all heard it. It comes right after the part about how to fasten your seatbelt. But every time that one line is said, I kind of skip a beat. The part about the emergency exit being possibly behind me or that my seat will double as a flotation device—fine. I keep reading my book. But the part about the oxygen masks always gets to me.

Every time it is said, I just picture the scenario. There I am, with my baby and children beside me, and suddenly there isn't enough oxygen to comfortably breathe. Suddenly those yellow cups drop from above, and though they should be fairly simple to figure out, I am nervous and I fumble. My children are hysterical and look to me for help. And me? I take care of myself, leaving them helpless, until I can come to their aid.

I'm with my baby and children beside me, and suddenly there isn't enough oxygen to breathe

It's a pretty bothersome thought.

But actually, it's brilliant.

I pondered this one for a while. And I realized that they have to tell you to do this, because if they didn't, we wouldn't. Our natural instinct would be to help our children first. It would be (hopefully) to help the little old lady next to us, and then to take care of ourselves.

But this kind of help, in the end, will not help.

If I were to first take care of my baby (because with this thought-process I would start with the youngest, the most vulnerable, first) who knows how I would be feeling by the time her mask would be on. I imagine my baby wouldn't sit still and would immediately pull the mask from her face. But what would happen to me? How would I be? And the other kids?

If I don't get the oxygen I need, I am of no use to anyone. If I am not breathing properly, I am not able to help my children breathe, and they are certainly in no position to help me. Bottom line, if I don't take care of myself, I can't take care of anyone else.

I have always had this terrible fear of being selfish. Selfishness is one of those character traits that is so distasteful that you sometimes go to ridiculous lengths to avoid anything that could resemble it. It's like how I feel about racism. I find that I am so careful to never appear racist, that I am actually racist in a reverse kind of way. While I am busy being incredibly nice to someone because of his color or creed, in truth, I am treating this person differently because of that (albeit at least nicely and not cruelly). I am still focusing on the color and not on the person.

If I don't get the oxygen I need, I am of no use to anyone

It's the same when it comes to selfishness. I am always looking at my actions and my desires to figure out where they are coming from and if they are proper. And it took me some time and backbone to realize this, but ultimately, it isn't an action that is selfish, it is the motivation behind the action. It is not what you are doing, but why you are doing it.

I don't believe there is any absolute way that any specific action can be judged selfish or selfless. The very same action could be completely selfless in one person, completely selfish in another. What it boils down to is not whether you're doing something for yourself or not, but why are you are doing it. Are you doing it for yourself at the expense of another, or are you doing it for yourself for the benefit of another?

If I do something for myself before I take care of my children, and it is because I care more about myself, my needs, my desires—then that is selfish. If by taking care of myself first and keeping them waiting only I gain, then it is wrong. However, if I am doing something for myself first so that ultimately I will be able to help my children, and they will benefit, then it is not only not selfish, perhaps it is essential, both for their health and my own.

It's not whether you're doing something for yourself, but why

Now we can take this analogy even a little further. Because, after all, the oxygen we need to survive is not just the physical oxygen. Each person has his or her own individual needs in terms of the space, time and circumstances required to feel healthy. No one can judge that for someone else. And a person must first fill his needs before he can help another. Notice that I said, "needs" and not "wants." We are talking about what is essential—what is required to live and be healthy. These are not luxuries, these are necessities, though my necessities may vary greatly from yours. The important thing is that we both figure out what it is we need to ensure that we acquire it.

And like the Torah instructs us in regards to tzedakah (the mitzvah of giving charity), as great as it is to help people throughout the world, charity starts at home. First you help yourself, then your family, then your community and then society at large. Just like on the plane, first put on your own mask, then your children's and then help the person next to you or in the aisle behind.

But then again, hopefully there will be no need for any of this. Hopefully it will be a smooth ride the whole way and those little yellow cups will stay tucked up behind that secret trap door. And if we are really lucky, we won't even have any turbulence. So buckle your seatbelt, relax, and enjoy the flight!