Anyone who has ever flown commercially has seen or heard the mandatory safety briefing before takeoff, which always includes something like the following announcement:
In the unlikely event of a sudden loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will drop down from the overhead panel. Reach up, pull the tube to its fullest extent, and place the mask over your nose and mouth. Pull the straps to adjust. Oxygen is flowing even if the bag does not inflate. Be sure to secure your own mask before helping someone else.
“Be sure to secure your own mask before helping someone else.” There’s a good reason for that warning. At high altitude, the air is very, very thin. When an aircraft loses cabin pressure, oxygen becomes scarce. Unless a person gets on oxygen quickly, hypoxia sets in, often with tragic consequences. Hence, the warning: if we try to help someone else before securing our own mask, we’re liable to pass out. Unless we put our mask on first, we won’t be much good to anyone else.
The airline safety briefing offers a cautionary tale to all ministers and leaders: we have to secure our own masks first! Unless we take care of ourselves, we won’t be able to take care of others or lead the organizations that demand our best. If we don’t secure our masks first, we’ll suffocate.
Here are a few ways we can keep the oxygen flowing.
We can avoid suffocating from the demands and pressures of our work by developing the habit of taking a Sabbath. One version of The Ten Commandments links Sabbath observance to Israel’s experience of bondage in Egypt. In that light, Sabbath observance aligns us with the fundamental rhythm of work and rest that’s at the very heart of being human. We run the risk diminishing ourselves if we succumb to the temptation of being “on” 24/7. Consequently, we develop a false assumption about ourselves; namely, that we are indispensable and nothing can happen without us. When we take time out and come to a full stop, we awaken to the humbling awareness that the world can run very well without our efforts. That’s healthy! Coming to a full stop prevents us from hyperventilating. Coming to a full stop allows us to breathe and breathe deeply.
We can keep the oxygen flowing if we learn to strike a balance between the things that drain and the things that energize. Every role we assume frequently asks us to tend to things that don’t necessarily give us an adrenaline rush. We don’t always get to work out of our strengths and best skill sets. For example, conceptual and social people will lose consciousness when forced to spend most of their time reviewing endless spreadsheets or tending to minutiae. Those who prefer structure and analysis will glaze over with brainstorming if there’s no solution in sight. These examples are overdrawn but they make the point well: unless we intentionally create some balance between the things that drain us and the things that energize us, we will find ourselves gasping for air.
Finally, play! Do something fun. Engage in an activity that takes your mind off your work and your responsibilities. Get lost crafting a piece of furniture in the shop. Play a round of golf. Get engrossed in a good book. Break the routine by taking in a movie. Have dinner with good friends. Take dancing lessons. Watch something on TV that makes you laugh so hard you cry! All these things refresh and renew the spirit. Playing lifts the weight off the chest, and our work becomes less labored.
Before jumping into a situation where the air is thin and the demands will be great, secure your mask first. Taking care of ourselves first is the only way we can successfully care for others.