The Beauty of Modesty for Men and Women
By Donald DeMarco
The modest person does not draw undue attention to
himself. He is self-assured, but not self-absorbed. He is temperate in
dress, language, and comportment and has a strong sense of the value of
his privacy. He knows that being a person is fundamentally incompatible
with being an object for public consumption. Modesty is, as it were, his body's conscience.
He is not interested in displaying his talents and attainments for
people to admire. He even shuns making himself the subject of conversation.
He is more eager to know what he needs to know than to parade what he already
knows. He has a healthy sense of himself as he is and is less concerned
about how others view him. His enthusiasms center around what is real.
Therefore he has little patiencewith flattery and adulation. Nor is he
inclined to exaggerate or boast. The modest person is aware of his limitations
and retains the capacity to blush.
Modesty is a virtue that is difficult to describe
since, by nature, it tends to withdraw from view. It operates somewhat
like a catalyst that does not do anything itself but assists other things
in working more efficiently. In this regard it is like a perfume that loses
its fragrance once it is exposed. Diogenes called modesty "the color of
virtue" because it heightens other virtues the way shading makes colors
in a painting appear more vivid and realistic.
Modesty makes a beautiful
person appear to be even more beautiful.
Mark Twain averred that "Man is the only animal that
blushes. Or needs to." A person blushes when he is suddenly the object
of praise or attention. It catches him off guard at a moment when he is
interested in something other than himself. The essence of modesty is self-forgetfulness.
Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" and the events
immediately connected with it comprise a noteworthy illustration of the
virtue of modesty. Although he was not the main speaker for the occasion,
Lincoln produced five slightly different versions of his speech, all of
which he wrote out by hand. What was uppermost in his mind was the solemnity
of the occasion, which was the dedication of the Gettysburg battlefield
as a cemetary for those who had lost their lives in the great Civil War
battle that was fought there. It was most fitting, therefore, for him to
say that "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,
but it can never forget what they did here."
entirely appropriate for the occasion, helped to make his words far more
memorable than he could have imagined at the time. The text of his speech
at Gettysburg is carved on a stone plaque at the Lincoln Memorial in the
nation's capital. What is sewn in self-forgetfulness is more likely to
endure than what is produced with applause in mind.
Edward Everett was the principal speaker on that
same day, November 19, 1863. Moved by the gracefulness of the resident's
words and the nobility of his tone, he wrote to Lincoln and humbly confessed
that "I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to
the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes."
Lincoln answered Everett's letter the same day he received it, November
20, 1863. He stated that under the circum-stances Everett could not have
been excused to make a short address, nor he himself a long one. "I am
pleased to know that, in your judgment," Lincoln went on to write, "the
little I did say was not entirely a failure." (2)
Modesty is a most attractive virtue, though it disappears as soon as
it is used specifically for that purpose. Modesty forbids self-advertisement
or private calculation. Dame Edith Sitwell once said that she often wished
she had time to cultivate modesty, but was too busy thinking about herself.
(3) Although her remark was said in jest, it does illustate a truism, namely,
that self-centeredness can prevent modesty from taking root.
Whereas modesty enhances other virtues, immodesty calls so much attention
to itself that hardly anything else can be noticed. Immodesty, therefore,
can conceal personality. The popular maxim, "If you've got it, flaunt it",
fails to take into account the more important dimension of a person's inner
life. Modesty allows the beauty of one's personality to shine forth without the disturbing element of pride.
Immodesty is more conspicuous than modesty, but essentially because
of its superficiality. It does not require much depth of perception to
notice a display of flamboyance. Hollywood, the world's capital of glamor,
glitter, and glitz, enables people to make an entire career out of being
immodest. All this is only too well known. In a materialistic world, the
subtleties of modesty are easily overlooked.
If immodesty parades superficiality, modesty safeguards a mystery. The
poet Richard Crashaw suggests metaphorically that modest self-effacement
allows us to recognize the presence of God. In referring to the miracle
at Cana in which Christ changed water into wine, he states: "The unconscious
waters saw their God and blushed." (4)
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1) The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler (New Brunswick,
N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953), p. 25.
2) Ibid., p. 24.
3) Edith Sitwell, Observer, April 30, 1950.
4) Cited in Fulton J. Sheen, Life of Christ (New York: McGraw-Hill,
1958), p. 77.
Used with permission from Ignatius Press, publishers of The Heart of
Virtue by Donald DeMarco.