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By Eric A. Clayton

When I became a parent, the entire experience of flying on an airplane changed.

It became more stressful, for one: all that stuff to be ported from car to gate to destination – and the extra time needed to do so. Simultaneously entertaining and shushing the girls in-flight was another new challenge, all the while dodging both glares and knowing smiles of fellow passengers. And of course, you can never visit that tiny, tiny airplane bathroom too many times.

But the shift that most stands out to me is far more subtle, easily missed. You know that announcement that kicks off the flight?

“Please direct your attention to the flight attendants who will now demonstrate the safety guidelines…”

I used to keep my nose in a book, my headphones in my ears for that announcement – back, of course, when I could actually read or listen to music on the plane. But now, I find myself more and more inclined to listen.

“…and if you’re traveling with children, remember to put your mask on first…”

That’s the bit that strikes me differently. You know how it goes: The plane cabin loses pressure, the masks drop, and you’re tempted to help everyone else around you put on their masks before donning your own.

Don’t do it.

“Sir, do you understand? You put your mask on first. Then you’ll put her mask on.”

The flight attendant was leaning into my row, nodding insistently, eyes wide and determined.

“Yes,” I assured her. “I’ll put my mask on first.”

No one had ever before checked my comprehension of the pre-flight announcement before I became a parent.

I love what this experience – this common experience that any of us who have flown on a plane can understand – implies about humanity. Think of it: We, as human beings, are so naturally predisposed to helping the most vulnerable around us that we need both a special announcement and a personal reminder to insist that we first care for ourselves.

At least, I like to think of it like that.

Because if we look at ourselves as God does – inherently good, beautiful, worthy of delight – then this overflowing desires to reverence and serve and safeguard that which is good, beautiful and worthy of delight in one another makes sense. It’s part of our very makeup, a reminder again that we go to God together.

And yet, we know this isn’t quite how our day-to-day looks. What can we do?

First, we look to ourselves. After all, we can only love our neighbor so well as we love ourselves. That kind of self-sacrificing love burns us out, frustrates us, leaves us empty-handed. We need to step back and ensure that flow of oxygen is pumping through our own systems.

In stepping back, do we glimpse that proverbial oxygen mask dangling just within reach? Is God offering us some bit of refreshment that requires a momentary pause and an inward glance?

Second, if our natural impulse and great desire is to immediately and enthusiastically respond to the needs of the most vulnerable – and in so doing, the very Christ we desire to draw near to – then what is stopping us? What stymies that natural, God-given impulse to love and serve the Creator in all things? What obstacle do we need to remove to allow our inner goodness to flow?

Finally, we, too, find ourselves at times sitting next to someone else who is busy putting on their own mask. Do we trust in the goodness of that other person and wait our turn? Or, do we grasp at our friend’s mask, unable and unwilling to believe that there is enough to go around?

This week of gratitude is the perfect time to reflect on these questions, to cultivate that disposition of thanksgiving to our Creator for the goodness within and the goodness without – and to nurture an attitude of trust in God and God’s creation that we have exactly what we need when we love and serve and trust and give thanks for one another.

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a person smiling for the cameraEric A. Clayton is the author of Cannonball Moments: Telling Your Story, Deepening Your Faith (Loyola Press) and the deputy director of communications at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. His essays on spirituality, parenting and pop culture have appeared in America MagazineNational Catholic ReporterBusted Halo and more, and he is a regular contributor to Give Us This Day, and Dork Side of the Force, where he blogs about Star Wars. His fiction has been published by Black Hare Press, the World of Myth Magazine and more. He lives in Baltimore, MD with his wife, two young daughters and their cat, Sebastian.