“Compassion, like charity, begins at home. The first step toward deep healing is self-healing. Only after we have remembered to respect and care for ourselves can we truly enter into “kinship with all beings.” If we try to help others before we have healed our wounds and developed compassion for ourselves, we may find that the basis of our rescuing and helping of others is codependency rather than co-creation.”
When I first read the above quote from psychologist Joan Borysenko’s Fire in the Soul, the following came to mind: “…should there be a loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will automatically drop from the compartment above your seat…Please adjust your mask before assisting a child or another passenger.” Most readers will recognize this as the instructions given by flight attendants prior to the take off of an aircraft; their announcement is a reminder of the truth that caring for ourselves best positions us to care for others.
Given the conventional message many of us have internalized from family, faith communities, and society in general, taking care of ourselves first can feel counter intuitive; it can feel self-serving, and even selfish. We are to care for others first, those voices say, and for ourselves only after everyone else’s needs are met. But compassion does indeed begin at the home that is our self.
“Adjusting our own mask” first is good counsel in the physical realm, for without proper nutrition, exercise, and rest, we would eventually be unable to perform the simplest tasks that might prove helpful to others. But self-care is also essential in the more subtle arena of the soul; here the question becomes what do we need to do, or cease doing, in order to be in touch with our deepest self, for it is only from this place of inner-connection that we can be our best for others. Perhaps we need to spend some alone time now and then, or to immerse ourselves in nature, relax with family and friends, or pray/meditate; it may be that these serve to refresh our soul. On the other hand, we may need to drink less alcohol, work less, spend less time in front of the television, or on social media, for these activities often result in our becoming a stranger to our selves.
Surely there are times and circumstances in which it is necessary to set aside our own needs and/or preferences in order to appropriately attend to another; this is especially true in times of crisis or when danger lurks. But in the long run of our relationships, “respect and care for ourselves” physically and spiritually are essential, for we can always count on a loss of “cabin pressure” from time to time.