Can We Talk About Modesty in a Secular Society?

Outside of religious circles, it’s not at all popular to talk about modesty. And in religious circles, modesty often gets reduced to how short a woman’s skirt is or whether you can see her hair or bare shoulders.

I don’t often come across discussions of modesty as a way of living with dignity and restraint, especially in a world that constantly encourages excess. Whether or not you’re religious, the concept of modesty is worth exploring. And not just for women.

(Do I feel a little like Mary Bennet bringing this up? A little, yeah, but I’m also laughing at that thought.)

So, what does modesty look like?

  • Not flaunting wealth or expensive possessions, in a world where displays of luxurious excess are everywhere.
  • Holding back on gloating or on glorying over another person’s problems.
  • Being moderate in how you drink, eat, or enjoy other pleasures. Basically, enjoying yourself without overdoing it or indulging in out-of-control behavior.
  • Not wanting to “bare it all.” Being more selective about what you share and with whom. I’m not just talking about your body, but your secrets, your children’s secrets, lots of personal details shared for no helpful reason. (Sometimes there’s a good reason to share a secret, especially when you’re trying to protect yourself or others from danger, but in other cases it’s just TMI, 24/7, on social media and elsewhere.)
  • Preserving important boundaries. Not thinking that you’re entitled to control people and violate their privacy, dignity, and trust. Not treating your own worth with carelessness, as if it doesn’t matter who you let into your life or which violations you perpetrate or endure.
  • Stopping yourself from acting like a loud and aggressive ass.

Modesty is an antidote to excess, to a lack of thoughtfulness and judicious restraint. It’s connected to humility, another unpopular concept that often gets misunderstood as humiliation or needing to act like a doormat – when instead, it’s about being aware of your limitations as a human, which means you’re curbing arrogance and acting with greater care and healthy doubt.

For many people, the concept of modesty is steeped in unpleasant connotations. It has been frequently misused as a weapon to silence and hurt people, particularly women and girls. Its misuse doesn’t make it useless though. It’s still an important value and can be discussed meaningfully and helpfully in different contexts.

It should be possible to talk about modesty without self-righteous hectoring and preening. Also, without the hyper-focus on women (or rather, certain aspects of women) and the mere lip service paid to the idea that men should be modest too.

People don’t have to be religious to appreciate modesty and its possible expressions. They can consider how to bring it more into their lives and what may change for the better as a result.

Perpetually Isolated Seniors

I was reading an article about the effects of pandemic isolation on seniors, when this part jumped out at me:

After the pandemic hit, some seniors felt a dramatic worsening of loneliness and mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, after which things perhaps stabilized a bit as the pandemic progressed. Others — probably those who were already very isolated, Perissinotto notes — weren’t very affected, likely because the pandemic didn’t change much about their level of social contact.

The seniors who “weren’t very affected,” because they were already very isolated before the pandemic – yes, the pandemic may not have affected them as much, because you can’t make a rock-bottom situation worse. The deep levels of loneliness, anxiety, or depression predate the social distancing measures.

Living alone, sometimes with only a T.V. to listen to, day in and day out, is a way of life for many people. A tiny number may relish it (you’d have to ask them), but the vast majority of people would never choose such unrelenting isolation.

A bunch of articles came out early in the pandemic (like this one) about the need to reach out to isolated older adults. I hope more people realize that this is a long-standing problem, and it continues now.

Five Tricks Food Companies Use to Make You Think You’re Eating Healthy

When people become more health conscious, food companies try to make products sound more healthy. It’s important to not be caught off-guard by the tricks they use.

The following are five to watch out for:

“Contains natural ingredients!”

Many companies will make this statement on their food packaging. Or they’ll display a variation of it, like “all natural” and – my favorite – “made with real fruit.” (“There’s real fruit in our fruit juice. How unexpected!”)

But is a product with “natural ingredients” actually healthy? Maybe, maybe not. If I bake an apple pie, it will contain real apples. It will also have plenty of sugar. All-natural sugar.


Organic is a healthy-sounding word, and some foods described as organic are in fact healthy. Other times, not so much. I’ve seen organic candies and chocolate bars. I may be using organic apples for my sugary apple pie.

“Only 70 calories per serving!”

That doesn’t sound too bad. I mean, it’s only 70 calories. But be sure to check the serving size. If the serving size is a teaspoon, and you just ate 10 teaspoons, the 70 calories quickly became 700.

The same warning applies to other nutritional claims, like, “Only 4 grams of sugar per serving!” Always check the serving size.

“Low fat!”

Many foods are low in fat. However, when you check the nutrition label, you may discover that they’re high in sugar or salt or that they contain undesirable additives, like unhealthy oils.

“It’s yogurt, so it’s healthy!”

Companies love to take advantage of the fact that you associate certain foods with health. Yogurt is one example. Many people automatically assume that a yogurt product is a healthy choice. But this isn’t always true. For certain brands, a small yogurt cup will contain a lot of sugar, especially if it’s flavored yogurt. Always check the nutrition label.

Another example is salad. Salads can be a healthy choice, but not if you bury the vegetables in heavy dressings and croutons. In some restaurants, salads are hundreds of calories because of the excessive use of oily, salty, or sugary additives. The word ‘salad’ still gives these dishes a vaguely healthy aura.

The Altruism of Humpback Whales

We share the planet with numerous creatures, and there’s a lot that we still don’t understand about them. For one example, watch this video from BBC Earth about a scientist’s unfathomable encounters with a humpback whale that saved her life.

Why Does Self-Loathing Feel Comfortable?

One of the strangest things about chronic self-loathing is how comfortable it can feel. 

Self-loathing often comes up in discussions about depression and low self-worth, and people want advice on how to fight it. However, as horrible as it is, it can also feel strangely easy and comfortable, which helps it retain a firm grip on the psyche. The following are five potential reasons:


Even if something is deeply unpleasant, it can feel comfortable just because it’s familiar. If you’ve been living with self-loathing for a long time, it can seem like a part of you. 

You may even associate self-loathing with love, or your experience of love. If you learned the language of self-loathing as a young child, its familiarity is rooted in the types of caregiving you grew up with. If you learned it in an adult relationship with a deeply critical or hostile partner, it can be tangled up with your conception of intimacy. As painful as it is, it’s what you know.

Who are you without self-loathing? That question can provoke a great amount of anxiety. When you attempt a major change, including a psychological change, you need to deal with uncertainty and some degree of pain and discomfort. If your self-loathing is weaker or absent, your life may ultimately become much better. But the transition to that new way of life – new attitudes, new ways of relating to yourself and others – isn’t easy.

Continue reading “Why Does Self-Loathing Feel Comfortable?”

One of the Biggest Effects of Our Pandemic Response

What’s being referred to as “learning loss” – the effects of distance learning and interruptions to education. The Guardian recently reported some worldwide data on children’s setbacks in literacy and math skills. This doesn’t cover the psychological effects; here’s some U.S. data shared by Pew.

When Is a Disorder a Disorder?

In this Reddit post, a man describes himself as a “happy loner” whose adulthood has been peaceful and enjoyable. But recently he learned about schizoid personality disorder and began to wonder if he has it and what it means for his life.

Let’s leave aside the question of whether or not he actually has this disorder. Had he never come across information about it, would he have continued being content with his life? Generally, distress is a major indicator of a psychological issue – distress and disruption to one’s life and ability to function. Would he have just kept enjoying his life?

Or would he have become discontented at some point, maybe wondering if he’s missing out on something? It’s hard to answer this question. People can live an unusual or off-the-beaten-track life with satisfaction and without harm to themselves or others.

Looking further down in the thread, I see that he mentions wanting to have a long-term relationship… so maybe that’s his area of discontent? He may not really desire relationships but he still wants to see if he can be in one successfully?

Maybe he has an underlying discontent that he was only vaguely aware of, but the information on schizoid personality disorder brought it to the forefront of his mind. He may be reacting to what he’s learned and maybe also to a perceived stagnation. A lot of times, people feel the need to try something new and see if it works for them better than their current way of life – not necessarily because they’re suffering, but because they want to explore other possibilities.

The responses on that thread include people telling him that he already has a good life and wondering what exactly he thinks he needs to change if he’s satisfied. Also, even if at some point he does wish to change his life, would he need a formal diagnosis and a psychologist?

Emma (2009) vs. Emma (2020)

It’s interesting how the same novel can give rise to multiple screen adaptations that are strikingly different in tone and their approach to the characters. Neither of them is really like the novel either, because you’re not going to capture the experience of reading Austen in a screen adaptation.

Overall, I prefer the 2009 Emma, but there were things I liked about the 2020 one too. I haven’t watched either of them recently, so I’m working from memory here.

In both versions, Emma is conscious of her social rank and needs to become more mature, considerate, and perceptive. The 2009 version brings out something a little vulnerable and lost in her, connected to the fact that she’s led a sheltered life and seen little of the world; also, the acting is more informal in that one, so her mannerisms come across as younger and even childish sometimes. In the 2020 one, she’s steelier and more sophisticated (even though her readings of social situations can be wildly inaccurate, which is part of the humor).

The 2009 version has beautiful pastoral imagery, and the interiors are both grand and soft; they have an earthy palette, lovely furnishings, and a lived-in feel. The 2020 version takes grandeur to another level. The interiors look pristine and lavish. Emma and the other characters are like dolls in a bejeweled dollhouse. This also fits the sense of Emma living in a bubble; nothing exists in the world outside of the dollhouse. (There are similar differences in the outfits – the 2009 adaptation gives Emma some lovely gowns, but the 2020 one takes the fashion to a whole other level.)

The 2020 one plays up the social comedy more, especially with the introduction of the quiet, long-suffering servants who try to iron out every inconvenience in the lives of the wealthy people having fits of drama around them. (The servants’ facial expressions subtly reveal what they dare not say.) 

As for Knightley… overall, I prefer the 2009 one (Jonny Lee Miller), but Johnny Flynn was also good in the 2020 adaptation. I think each Knightley is a good Knightley for the adaptation he’s in.

The 2009 Emma is a mini-series, which makes it feel more expansive and gives the scenes more breathing room. The 2020 one is a regular movie, more constrained in time with a faster pace, and so the humor also has a more staccato feel.

Watching different Austen adaptations is an interesting way to study filmmakers’ choices. What do they try to emphasize from the books? How do they try to communicate a different social world to a modern audience, or bring out a novel’s humor (which in some scenes comes down to a turn of phrase or an ironic tone)? If you’ve watched either of these, share your own opinions on what worked for you.

Do You Tell Your Kids What They Should Feel?

Parents often want kids to feel differently about something. The kids dislike a family member they’re supposed to love. They don’t enjoy an activity their parents sign them up for. They’re disgusted with healthy food, bored with school, and gripped by fears that make day-to-day life more difficult.

A common response from parents is: “You shouldn’t feel that way.”

Often, parents will present their kids with a different option: “You should feel happy. You should love your uncle (or grandma, or whoever it is the child dislikes). You shouldn’t be afraid.” Parents may also make unhelpful comparisons. “I never felt like that when I was your age! Your brother likes playing sports; why don’t you?”

Telling kids how they should feel usually isn’t helpful. The emotion doesn’t simply vanish because you want it to. At best, kids may temporarily suppress it. Over time, they may also learn that it’s pointless to share their feelings with you, because what you’re interested in are the right emotions felt at the right time – not the inconvenient or upsetting emotions your kids actually experience.

What’s a more helpful response to children’s unwanted feelings?

Figuring out why they feel a certain way

Sometimes, the reason is silly or not deeply meaningful. It could be that they’re tired at the end of the day or grumpy because they haven’t eaten. Other times, they have a legitimate reason for not liking someone or not wanting to go somewhere; it may even be a matter of personal safety.

Children’s emotions are also shaped by their social circle. How other people treat them will have an impact on their feelings, including insecurities and self-loathing.

Working with them on how to express emotions

Instead of wishing the emotion away, children need to know how they can deal with it. For instance, what are good ways to express anger without inflicting harm on other people or on yourself?

Focusing on behavior

Appropriate behaviors are more important than appropriate emotions. Kids need to know when and how to ask for help, especially in dangerous situations. Many times, they need to achieve a workable compromise, such as treating someone they dislike with politeness, but without a fake show of friendship or love.

In other situations, they may simply want to stop doing something – and it’s not the end of the world. For example, even if you have your heart set on your kid playing football or basketball, they may have zero interest in either sport. Instead of repeatedly dragging them to games and shaming them for their lack of enthusiasm, help them explore other interests.

Remembering that emotions aren’t permanent

Keeping a sense of perspective about emotions is also important. Feelings and attitudes can change – sometimes within hours, and sometimes after several years. Kids may feel quite differently about something at different points in their childhood and adolescence. Emotions are important signals, worth paying attention to, but they aren’t necessarily a reflection of an unchanging truth.

Berating kids about what they feel usually causes them to bottle things up or lie about their emotions. It also makes you less trustworthy to them, because they can’t open up to you. The focus instead should be more practical – which circumstances evoke certain emotions, how do we deal with emotions in non-destructive ways, and what are reasonable behaviors for different situations?

In Fiction You Don’t Have to Show Everything

Years ago, I watched Laura, a film noir that came out in the 1940s. At the start of the movie, you learn that a young woman has been found murdered in an apartment. The police assume that she’s the apartment’s tenant, Laura Hunt. It’s a reasonable assumption, based on the information they have.

This information doesn’t include facial recognition. Why? Because the murderer fired a shotgun at her face.

It’s a chilling detail. Even though the murder happens entirely offscreen, we don’t need to be told explicitly why a shotgun blast to the face would render someone unrecognizable. We understand why, and we understand how gruesome the scene must have been.

When contemporary novels, movies, and T.V. shows depict graphic violence or sex, explicit portrayals are common. These days, it’s much more likely that the murder or at least its aftermath would be shown onscreen. We’d see the bits of brain and bone and the splashes of blood, maybe a closeup of the ruined head. Would that make the story better in some way?  

What are your preferences when it comes to graphic portrayals? My own, especially for movies and shows, is to not show everything. I have more tolerance for graphic descriptions in text, but even then, I think there can be immense power in hinting at things or at least being more careful about what to depict and what to conceal. There’s power in letting people strain with their imagination towards the shadowed corners, the dark rooms where a horror is unseen but still very much present.

I’m reminded of a scene from Ivanhoe, a novel published in 1819 and set in the days of Robin Hood and Richard I. One of the main characters, Rebecca of York, gets captured by a rapacious knight and brought to a castle. There, Rebecca meets an older captive, Ulrica, a Saxon princess who has been enslaved for years. None of the horrific crimes against Ulrica are described explicitly, but what she tells Rebecca is still dreadful:

Thou wilt have owls for thy neighbours, fair one; and their screams will be heard as far, and as much regarded, as thine own.

What would a contemporary adaptation of Ivanhoe look like? Would it show flashbacks of Ulrica’s captivity with explicit portrayals of her abuse, with her body positioned in a way that an audience might find more titillating than terrifying? It would likely be desensitizing and gratuitous. Nothing like the excerpt from the book.

I won’t say that there’s no room ever for explicit descriptions. They can be done well; they can have a place in a story. I just see so much that isn’t thoughtful. Explicit portrayals are often a knee-jerk choice, included because they’re expected, not because they’re the best way to tell the story.