Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Discipline, habit and Catholic modesty

The other day, I posted as part of my “Seven Quick Takes Friday” entry the video for The Romantics’ “Talking In Your Sleep”. At the very beginning of the video, we’re presented with shots of a woman dressing for bed in a manner that in 1985 was rather risqué. (By today’s standards it’s pretty tame … and even pretty lame.)

Chalk it up to my rather late reversion and my ongoing struggle against the thoughts and habits of a lifetime, but I never thought I’d ever have to warn men to practice custody of the eyes. So to offset my discomfort, I cracked a joke about the cringe-worthy hairstyles (the pompadours disappeared in time for their next hit, the ever-annoying “What I Like About You”). But there’s still that lingering feeling of hypocrisy: Good Lord, what right do I have to be a prude?

But the thoughts and habits of a lifetime are precisely what concerns us in discussing Catholic modesty. It’s those habits that, in my case, created an addiction to porn against which I still do battle, and which will remain a temptation as long as I’m hooked to the Internet. (Take a moment here to say a prayer for me, please.) And it’s from that perspective that I feel I should contribute.

Objectively, there’s nothing wrong with people being beautiful, or presenting themselves as beautiful, so long as one doesn’t take excessive pride in it or go to absurd lengths to maintain it. In fact, I would hold it as much a sin to destroy one’s beauty with food, drugs and an unhealthy lifestyle — the sin of self-hatred, which is neither modesty nor humility.

And that’s where modesty begins: not in the choice of hem length, jeans tightness or depth of décolletage, but in how we see ourselves and how we see the opposite sex. More specifically, it begins in training the mind in how to think and the body in how to react. Discipline is consciously doing something over and over again until you can do it unconsciously: deliberately creating a habit, rather than letting it arise to take you unaware.

One of the most insightful things I ever read was in one of Tony Robbins’ books. There’s a back-and-forth influence between the language we use and the emotions we feel, between how we talk and how we think. Robbins’ point was that a person who doesn’t have (say) rage as part of his everyday vocabulary generally doesn’t ever feel enraged, either; he knows what it means, but won’t use it to describe what emotion he experiences.

But here’s where the problem begins: By the time a child who attends a regular school is ten or eleven years old, the odds are he’s not only been exposed to sexually-oriented language but has started to talk about sex with his friends. And that language doesn’t treat sex as a holy union between married people, or even as the coupling of animals attempting to reproduce. Rather, the language is of gratification and objectification, the reduction of persons to body parts, skills and willingness.

Consider that a chunk of our school days were spent with one or another of our peers saying to us, “Check out the (insert body part here) on him/her!” The closest we got to learning custody of the eyes was “Dude, don’t stare, that freaks them out!” But it was understood that we could check out and be checked out, so long as we weren’t caught drooling like morons.

So, you start surreptitiously checking others out, your mind beginning to analyze others in terms of sexual characteristics. But you can’t help applying those terms and that manner of observation to yourself; you start emphasizing through dress what others find sexually appealing and de-emphasizing the less attractive parts. And because the culture factories overload our senses with suggestive images, you either consciously or unconsciously ape them, striking poses to tempt, tease, and torment.

Now, keep in mind I’m not saying that the young person has already decided to give in at the first opportunity. He may have decided to save it until marriage … or at least after college. But already he’s set up a pattern of thinking, talking and acting that will create greater difficulties in keeping that promise; so far as the promise exists, it’s pragmatic at best, not really based on an appreciation for women as women or sex as a participation in God’s creation. And he’s set that pattern up unconsciously, with the help of other teenage animals who are also creating their mindsets unconsciously.

The counteragent to the development of a bad habit is the deliberate cultivation of a good habit. “That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat, Of habits devil, is angel yet in this, That to the use of actions fair and good He likewise gives a frock or livery, That aptly is put on” (Hamlet, 3:4). Good habits of speech and thought can be developed consciously, as a form of exercise. It just takes conscientious discipline, like doing sit-ups or running a mile in the morning.

Modesty, in this respect, isn’t just about what you wear on the outside of your skin. It’s a way of life, of treating people as children of God. The author of Hebrews reminds us to show hospitality to strangers, “for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb 13:2). Since what we do to the least of our brothers is what we do to the Lord (Mt 25:40, 45), it follows that we should treat each other with no less respect than we would expect for ourselves.

When we start thinking in a modest way, then choice of clothes actually becomes much easier, because fashion becomes less of a preoccupation. And you actually save some money, because you really didn’t need those implants anyway.

It’s amazing how beautiful some people can be when they’re not trying to be sexy.