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.

A Reminder About Humility in Judgment

A couple of days ago, I was thinking about something that often happens online (and offline too) – when you have a conversation with someone, and they aren’t really speaking to you; they’re speaking to their misconception of you.

In the conversation, you feel like an image has coalesced next to you. It vaguely resembles you, and it’s made up of the other person’s mistaken assumptions about your motives, beliefs, hobbies, etc.

To varying degrees, I think we all have a tendency to do this to other people. We fly to quick judgments about them based on stereotypes or based on our own fears or interactions with superficially similar people. Some people do this maliciously; they deliberately create cruel and damaging misconceptions that they try to force as truth during a conversation.

I remembered something I wrote a couple of years ago around this time of year – the Jewish High Holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It was a piece on humility in judgment. Humility isn’t a fashionable characteristic, especially because it’s often confused with ‘humiliation’ or ‘abject lowliness.’ In truth, it’s an aid to clearer thinking and integrity.

From that piece:

Humility opens up space for self-awareness, thoughtfulness, and doubt. You make a judgment whenever necessary, while remaining conscious of the fact that you may have erred or acted on incomplete knowledge. You acknowledge the possibility that you’ll need to revise your judgment in the future.

Forming a judgment with humility isn’t the same thing as assuming a non-judgmental pose or deciding that you aren’t capable of judging at all. Rather than kill your ability to judge, humility refines it. You’re less apt to rely on snap judgments and more likely to assess a situation thoughtfully, with a better sense of your limitations.

This isn’t easy. Humility is an admission that you’re living with uncertainty. It reminds you of the limits of your knowledge and powers of thought.

Let’s keep aiming for genuine humility in judgment, in conversation, and in thought. You can still speak with conviction but without overestimating how much (or how well) you know or understand.