Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Small Meditation on Modesty

In response to this essay.

Modesty is an internal awareness of the signals (including mating signals) that we all project. We cannot help projecting these signals. We cannot turn them off the way one turns off an electric appliance. But we can become aware of them in a way that will empower us and enrich our human experience (along with that of people around us).

We can condition our response to signals--notice it, temper our reaction to it, and make our participation in signalling more thoughtful, conscious, and compassionate. It is a profound mistake to insist on externalities as being crucially important, when what really matters are internal attitudes: what am I feeling? what do I want or need? why do I feel this way? how are my feelings influencing others? what can I do to make myself and others more likely to respond well to these feelings?  Cultivating an attitude of empathy and compassion for other people is much more important than picking the right wardrobe, language, or bodily posture.

Every day, I actively seek out time to contemplate myself and those around me with compassion.  I look at myself and the world consciously, deliberately, and gratefully--noticing the signals that people send, consciously or not, and trying to see how those signals offer insight into a moral instinct that could be the most beautiful human virtue imaginable (if cultivated properly).  I observe people flirting or snarling at one another, and I try to see underneath the basic impulse to love--to protect something vulnerable, to find and savor happiness without harm.  I see that my misplaced signals, and yours too, are merely bungled attempts at loving, and I forgive both of us.  I laugh at us where we are stupid.  I cry with us where our stupidity causes harm that we didn't want (or that we did).  I imagine how we might do better in future, and I encourage us to keep trying (aiming not for perfect success but for minimally disastrous failure).  This exercise has taught me more about modesty (and other human virtues) than any course in external etiquette (of which I have taken several).  Practice compassion, and modesty (real modesty, not the sham stuff) will follow.  Esse quam videri is a saying that really applies here: you are the only one who can see how modest you really are; your modesty will only improve as you learn to see it through practicing compassion for yourself and other people.  There are no shortcuts (that I have found), no external fixes that effectively substitute for deliberate personal investment in seeking empathy.

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