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Modesty as Best Policy
Cultivating true modesty can help us break the chains of our culture.


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Kathryn Jean Lopez

Everyone who knew Gershon Burd knew he was “a nice guy.” He would purposely sit by the entrance to his yeshiva study group, for example, so that he could smile at people as they walked in. But they really had no idea of the depths of his goodness until he died last year in an accident on his 40th birthday. Testimonies poured in to his wife of ten years about how he made lives better — including through the charity he had quietly established to give money away. Spending only the minimum on yourself, you may find out you have much more than you would ever need. This was Burd’s discovery. But believing that it took away from the giving to be acknowledged, he did it all anonymously. 

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I was introduced to Gershon Burd in the new preface to Wendy Shalit’s contemporary classic, A Return to Modesty. Her book, first published 15 years ago, incited many a debate — and even outrage — all having to do with sex. So what does Burd, who anonymously paid local children’s school tuition and made sure they got balloons on their birthdays, have to do with it? Actually, he had so much to do with it that a picture of him and his family would easily have been a fitting cover for the book. About Burd, Shalit writes: “Really, is there anything more extraordinary than a life lived with such sublime modesty?”

Shalit first wrote A Return to Modesty shortly after college, in no small part in reaction to the hook-up culture on her campus. Now she sees the bigger picture. She writes: “Today, after being married for ten years and becoming a mother of three, I have a different perspective on modesty. I now see modesty not just as a part of successful relationships, but as part of a large understanding of what makes a life successful. We can’t control what we get in life, so long-term happiness depends largely on how much we train ourselves to get satisfaction from giving.” The big picture modesty shines a light on is about seeing one’s life as an integrated whole, lived in communion with others. It’s about escaping the tyranny of a bifurcated, isolated self, which can be such an overwhelming temptation today.

Or we could talk about Jell-O. That’s the BDSM (bondage, domination, sado-masochism) “safe word” (a word to use if things start getting out of hand) a worker at a Planned Parenthood clinic shares with a 15-year-old who is trying to keep sex from being “boring.” The counseling is the subject of the latest undercover video investigation by Live Action, a group that makes it its business to uncover life inside abortion clinics in the United States.

As it turns out, that particular clinic, now under investigation by the state of Oregon, is a beneficiary of Obamacare “sex education” funding. The so-called Affordable Care Act is full of restrictions and oppressions — always a danger when things are done “comprehensively” as a political manipulation — limiting freedom and stifling healthy debate, in the name of an ideologically loaded “choice.”

“Man hungers for beauty,” Dana Gioia, a poet who has served as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, said in a speech at the Napa Institute conference last week. “There is a void.”

That void can be seen when the best advice an adult can think to give a child is sharing her “safe word.” Why would we ever encourage the young to settle for something so demeaning? In a culture where 50 Shades of Grey is a Valentine’s Day “love story,” it’s not the whips that are the problem but the chains of such low expectations.

We do tend to settle for slavery to this culture. We fear; we drown in burdens and weary in our overstimulation. We let ourselves fall victim to lame substitutes for love and happiness when if we would move away from the screen, we might just discover the real thing. We become blind and deaf; we look at a word like modesty and make assumptions, or just dismiss it. We become indifferent to alternatives, proposals, truth, and challenge. We surrender our freedom even while purporting to be waving its flag.

In Shalit’s book, she tells of a dad confessing that he didn’t want to interfere with his twin daughters’ “budding sexuality” by stepping in when they were wearing inappropriate clothes, a mother refusing to order her daughter to brush her hair for fear of treading on the girl’s “dominion,” and a teenager ending her life after photos taken without her consent became what she was known for around school. These are all poisonous fruits of a culture that has lost sight of its greatest treasure: the human prson, with inherent dignity and beauty. Relishing that, nourishing that, protecting that can be our greatest joy. And sometimes, as Shalit points out, boundaries can help us flourish.

Gershon Burd made a choice to sacrifice for others, including people he had never met. He knew he had something he could give that would better the lives of others in both small and dramatic ways. By doing so, he demonstrated the power of gratitude and generosity. He could have done otherwise, but there is something quite right about what he did. What his life proposes might be exactly what we most desire.

“To me, the biggest virtue of modesty is the way it enables us to be our best selves in private,” Shalit writes. Burd’s life offers us a beautiful portrait of freedom, of stewardship of the gifts we have been given. Our modest imitation might just fill that void. 

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Onlineand founding director of Catholic Voices USA. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.



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