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From Harvard to home

As I was sitting on the cramped airplane, frantic passengers were finding their seats and diligently trying to stuff oversized carry-ons into too-small compartments. The plane was packed with people headed to their Christmas destinations, and I was exhausted from a long day of exams, packing and traveling. 

As we neared takeoff, the flight attendant began her usual spiel, “… seatbelts are securely fastened … tray tables in their upright locked position ... etc., etc.” She continued, “In the event of a loss of pressure in the cabin, air masks will dispense from the ceiling of the aircraft. Be sure to put on your own mask before assisting another.”

Wait a second ... what? We are supposed to help ourselves first? It almost seems anti-American, but if you think about it, it makes sense. How can someone assist another passenger with a mask, if he doesn’t have one on first to be able to breathe?

I am asked for help everyday, as I am sure most of you are as well. Whether a shift at work needs covered, a friend needs notes from today’s lecture, or my roommate does not understand the last problem set, I try to help as much as I can, knowing that often, the shoe is on the other foot and I am the one in need. However, what am I supposed to do when I can’t help? When I have too much of my own work to do, when I don’t understand the problem myself, or when it’s 2 a.m. and I need to go to bed? Is saying no a selfish thing to do? If so, is “selfishness” always a bad thing?

Selfishness does have its time and place. Prime example: Last week, during the heart of exams, one of my closest friends had a mental breakdown. Brought on by sheer stress, she had a panic attack, was treated for severe anxiety in the emergency room, and lost over 10 pounds in a week. Her family was so worried that her father eventually flew to campus just to make sure she was OK.

During the week preceding her breakdown, I had observed her becoming more anxious and needing constant confirmation that she would ace her finals. Wanting to be supportive, I did the best I could to encourage her, while still being realistic. As the week wore on, however, she became increasingly stressed, and could no longer be comforted by words. She started to make me anxious, and I could feel my stress level elevating in her company. I had been handling my own exam schedule fairly well, and I was worried her negative attitude was going to pull me off track.

After she had her breakdown, I realized I needed some distance. I knew she had the professional resources she needed, and the best thing I could do was to focus on my own exams and concentrate on keeping a positive outlook. As much as I wanted to be by her side, I knew I had to take care of myself first. I would be no help to anyone if I collapsed in a puddle of anxiety myself.

Lesson learned: You cannot help others without first helping yourself. By sacrificing your own well being, you limit your capacity to help others. Unfortunately, being selfish has negative moral and cultural connotations, but in reality, you can only help a few put on their air masks before you pass out yourself. Do someone a favor today and be selfish. Put on your mask first; then your can help a hundred others put on their own.

Haley Adams, a Princeton High School graduate, is a sophomore at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. She can be reached at haleyadams@college.harvard.edu.

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