Buried deep inside the brain is the whispered voice of a mother, “don’t be selfish.” Somewhere around age two, the voice implants itself as a subliminal secret to be followed.

But selfishness is not what you think.

Teachers and parents instill the picture of selfishness as “thinking about self.” Yet, that’s not selfishness. The concept needs sharpening, refining, and scrubbing.

Selfishness is “thinking and acting in a way that excludes the needs of others.” A child that wants all the cookies is selfish. A child that eats cookies is not.

Fast forward 40 years and resentment speaks. “I never have time for myself.” The mind hangs a medal of martyrdom around itself, believing that any time, effort, or care for self would be selfish. But the most selfish act is not to care for self.

I’ve flown enough to know the speech made by flight attendants about oxygen masks. “In case of loss of cabin pressure, an oxygen mask will fall from the ceiling.” But the final instructions are “put the mask over your mouth first before trying to help someone else.” That’s not selfish.

You cannot care for another if you do not care for yourself.

It took me a while to get this concept. But my routine is now one of “take care of self to care for others.” It means:

Caring for your physical health. By proper fueling of the body and strengthening of the tissues, I provide energy for the tasks I need to do. I avoid debilitating diseases that would keep me from doing my job, helping my wife, caring for my father, and enjoying future grandchildren.

Caring for your intellectual expansion. The church I serve depends on me thinking. When I exhaust the reservoir I have nothing to give. I spend time putting back into the mind and the heart ideas that can be shared with others.

Caring for your emotional state. I’ve been a bear and I don’t enjoy it (and no one else does). Time away, time to think, plan, pray, run errands, and just level out keep me from snapping at people. It’s a trait I don’t like when it shows up. My only plan is prevention.

All these activities take time away from others. The phone rings. The doorbell goes unanswered. People will always have needs, wants, and desires. I don’t always immediately answer those calls. When I take care of myself I can take care of others. That is the epitome of selflessness.