I recently finished reading Wendy Shalit's A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue. It was interesting.
A lot of things jumped out immediately. For starters, the book is almost twenty years old and it definitely feels dates at points. She references pop culture quite a lot and everything surrounding date rape, gang rape, hazing, cat-calling, etc. reveals the book's age.
Another point of interest is that Shalit is Jewish. Though I don't know where she is religiously now, at the time she wrote the book, she was not Orthodox, sort of. She is definitely enamored with many things stemming from Orthodox Judaism, but she never centers herself within it. As a Christian, this makes her voice really interesting since it's hard to map her ideas over one-to-one with a lot of what is said within conservative Christianity.
Lastly, she is overly confident that what she says are obvious to womankind. Her book takes that tone of "all-people-secretly-know-this-and-when-it's-brought-into-the-light-they-will-rejoicingly-forsake-their-ways" that I find so irritating. Most people think they are acting consistently, logically, and morally, so I find any argument unconvincing that assumes people are simply blind.
Yet, at the end of the day, I have to give it to Shalit. She wrote a book about modesty that is actually philosophically engaging. How many women exist that can claim that? I disagreed with her on quite a lot, but I would recommend anyone interested in thinking about the topic of modesty to read this book. Unlike just about any conversation I've heard on the topic, Shalit does not stoop to the level of bikinis and yoga pants. Instead, she asks America to engage the topic as one with philosophical depth.
Unlike so many of the Evangelical debates that get stuck in the corner of male lust and whether or not women have a role to play in taking responsibility for such lust, Shalit addresses modesty as it actually should be addressed - as a sexual virtue. Her intended audience is not mother's trying to protect teenage boys from themselves or men who don't know how to keep their eyes off their friends' wives; rather, Shalit is writing to the completely secular female college grad who has spent her adult life sleeping around. If my memory serves me right, Shalit doesn't address clothing hardly at all. What she does address is the cultural, ethical, and philosophical milieu in which we live that tells young women they have nothing to protect sexually.
The core of Shalit's argument is that modesty is essentially about privacy. Modesty is about maintaining the right to keep to one's self what one chooses. Connected to this is the natural right to make a big deal out of our sexual selves, and our sexual activity. In Shalit's mind, the the loss of modesty in Western society started with the reduction of the gravity of sex. She argues that women naturally treat sex as a big deal and modesty is our natural desire to protect what we believe to be important. Anything that trivializes or reduces the importance of sex, anything that tells women it is "no big deal" is a direct attack on a woman's right to protect her sexual self.
Shalit meticulously argues that this is what is under attack in our society today. From classroom sex ed that forces young boys and girls to discuss their development and activity publicly to the common idea that women struggle with "hang ups" sexually if they do not respond in kind to men, Shalit argues that women today have been stripped of their natural tendency to modesty. By telling young teens to be casual and open about their sexual world, particularly by telling young women not to care so much about romantic notions concerning sex, our society is harming women's natural tendencies to protect themselves.
Shalit gets a lot wrong, especially in her historical analysis and her romanticization of gender relations in the past, but the Evangelical world would greatly benefit from thinking about modesty along Shalit's lines of thought. In the end, her analysis is right. Modesty is ultimately not about preventing men from committing certain sexual sins. Modesty is about much more fundamental issues. However it is culturally defined, modesty is about the basic right and need of a woman to keep her sexual self as her own, bequeathing the right to share in it only to the beloved of her choosing.
Despite all of the talk and hoopla about a woman's body belonging to herself, Shalit demonstrates that the Western world is increasingly and steadily redefining its sexual ethic to establish women's bodies as public entities. In the Evangelical world, all of our arguments about bikinis and yoga pants echo such changes. What we need is not detailed arguments about particular items of clothing, but rather a reexamination of some of the most basic principles. The question is not whether we as women are protecting our brothers, but rather whether we as women are keeping what we want to ourselves?
I have seen more snow this winter than I have ever seen before. That is excepting Colorado in winter, but its snow was already on the ground, not coming out of the sky. When I tell friends anywhere outside of Boston than our total snowfall for the year currently sits at 7.5 feet and that the weathermen are telling us there is no reason to expect an end yet, the first thing they gasp out is, "Are you surviving?"
Let's just say... I'm so incredibly glad I'm not one of the early Puritans coming to America. I understand better now their death rates. I find it almost unfathomable to think about how they did survive with pretty much woods shacks and zero food. I feel like I'm going to die with my nice centrally heated apartment and a well-stocked grocery store 5 minutes away.
The real question, though, is not how are we surviving physically, but rather, how are we bearing up in our spirits. We've had a blizzard every weekend for the past 4 weeks. I'm guessing that for people from places like Canada and Erie that's no big deal, but it's a huge deal when you had no expectation of living according to the whims of the weather vortex that suddenly decided to land on your city. The mental taxation is amazing as almost every aspect of public life suddenly becomes very frustrating and complicated.
Frankly, I understand why depression rates are higher in colder climates. As the physical world caves in on life, bringing with it darkness and confined quarters, it's only natural that our souls respond in kind. Our souls are intimately connected to physical reality; they can't and don't survive aloof from outer realities.
What has been necessary for me to survive is finding the presence of the Lord in it. All of my friends know that I struggle with busyness. My life often feels hectic and chaotic and overly full of people. But this crazy month of snow has taken much of that away. Every week as my world is once again turned into a living snow globe, I am allowed to step back and retreat from the pace of life.
In many ways, I have found the last month to be one of the most spiritually healthy for me in a long time. The slower mornings and evenings have allowed me to take care of myself in ways I often struggle to do. I've exercised my body more consistently and generally taken more time to plan meals (though I feely confess that recent days have been an exception). I've read more than I have in maybe years and I've made some good headway on a quilting project I started last fall. My husband is teaching me how to play video games. I know for some that may not seem like a healthy use of time, but for me, it's trying something new (always a good thing), I find it better than watching TV (yay for active relaxation!), and it helps us do something together that doesn't stoke my competitiveness (growing in marriage... always a good thing). I can count more things I'm either doing for the first time or picking back up after a long hiatus in last month than in the whole last year.
To my biggest benefit, though, I have started my mornings more quietly than I have in a long time. When you're life is suddenly this quiet, there is only so much gooning out on Facebook you can do before it starts to turn your stomach and so I've been more consistently reading scripture with breakfast than I have in a long time. It is deeply refreshing. I guess if my spiritual growth requires the mental fatigue of 7 feet of snow, I'll take it. I long for spring and sunshine and any shoe that's not a boot, but more than any of those things, I'm thankful for the monkish solitude of cancelled meetings and closed public transportation.
One of the books I've enjoyed reading these recent weeks is Brother Lawrence's The Practice of the Presence of God. I'll leave you with the following passage:
"If sometimes he is a little too much absent from that divine presence, God presently makes Himself to be felt in his soul to recall him, which often happens when he is most engaged in his outward business... My God, here I am all devoted to thee. Lord, make me according to Thy heart. And then it seems to him (as in effect he feels it) that this God of love, satisfied with such few words, reposes again, and rests in the fund and center of his soul. The experience of these things gives him such an assurance that God is always in the fund or bottom of his soul that it renders him incapable of doubting it upon any account whatever.
Judge by this what content and satisfaction he enjoys while he continually finds himself so great a treasure. He is no longer in an anxious search after it, but has open before him, and may take what he pleases of it.
He complains much of our blindness, and cries often that we are to be pitied who content ourselves with so little. God, saith he, has infinite treasure to bestow, and we take up with a little sensible devotion, which passes in a moment. Blind as we are, we hinder God and stop the current of His graces. But when He finds a soul penetrated with a lively faith, He pours into it His graces and favors plentifully; there they flow like a torrent which, after being forcibly stopped against its ordinary course, when it has found a passage, spreads itself with impetuosity and abundance.
Yes, we often stop this torrent by the little value we set upon it. But let us stop it no more; let us enter into ourselves and break down the bank which hinders it. Let us make way for grace; let us redeem the lost time, for perhaps we have but little left. Death follows us close; let us be well prepared for it; for we die but once, and a miscarriage there is irretrivable.
I say again, let us enter into ourselves. The time presses, there is no room for delay; our souls are at stake. I believe you have taken such effectual measures that you will not be surprised... Those who have the gale of the Holy Spirit go forward even in sleep. If the vessel of our soul is still tossed with winds and storms, let us awake the Lord, who reposes in it, and He will quickly calm the sea."