Friday, January 4, 2013

Re-Examining Emotional Modesty

Charming Disarray has started a series of posts on “Emotional Chastity” which I have been following since the first one appeared, and periodically going back to re-read. It is of great interest to me because I have written an entire book about modesty for women (a fact which I am sure does not recommend me to CD at all) and in it I actually spoke about emotional modesty; and also because I have written a book about manhood for young men, in which I posited a sort of emotional modesty for men.

Emotional modesty for women could very simply be defined as not sharing on an intimate emotional level, or allowing a man to share on such a level, unless he had openly declared his commitment to that relationship.

Emotional modesty for men could be defined as saying only what you mean, and no more. This means don’t act like you are pursuing a woman unless you do intend to commit to that relationship. I also discouraged the idea of dating without a clear intention of discerning marriage, and hence discouraged dating for young men who were not ready to get married, personally or financially.

Like all of my theories, they were formulated in response to a perceived problem. As I saw it, the women that I knew tended to be too ready to commit their hearts to relationships that very clearly weren’t going anywhere, because the guy was not committed at all. He, for his part, more often than not, was well content to let things go on, enjoying the attention and emotional (and/or physical) attachment, but apparently unable or unwilling to get tied down. That was the most common scenario that I saw, and so it was the scenario I wrote about. I was aware at the time that both theories could be taken too far and hence tried to balance them in my writings, but there is only so much you can do.

Three or four years later I am revisiting those theories, interested in finding the flaws. Surprisingly, I don’t find too many obvious flaws in formulation in the books. As I said, I was quite careful to balance out my theories with common sense. What I find, however, is that those theories play right into the hands of a certain attitude, which I have come to call “Fear Based Ethics.”

What is a “Fear Based Ethic?” It is an ethical proscription put forth out of fear of the possible consequences. I oppose it to “Love Based Ethics” which are embraced for love of the good that comes from them. A fear based ethic is, “You had better go to Mass on Sunday or you will go to hell.” A love based ethic would be, “I go to Mass on Sunday because I want to grow closer to God.” Currently (I am only 27 and my ideas are constantly under renovation) I am a bit suspicious of fear based ethics. They are suitable for two year olds, “Don’t run into the road or Daddy will spank you,” but hardly for adults. I recognize that sometimes a little fear of damnation is all that stands between myself and… well… damnation; However, I believe the ultimate goal is to move away from fear based ethics, and move towards love based ethics.

I recognize that fear of evil consequences is an inevitable component of any system of morals. The question is how much, and for how long, and how do we move to love?

It is not enough simply to avoid evil. We must learn to pursue the good with all our hearts. Even that is not quite love based. If I could write well enough, I could portray the good as it really is, and I the writer and you the reader would fall in love with that good, and be consumed with desire to pursue it. “Should” and “Want to” would be synonymous.

With that in mind, I want to take a cue from CD in examining the concept of “emotional chastity.”


  1. Ha ha, I'm actually a bit curious about your book. I'll have to read it someday and see how much outrage it merits. Although the fact that you wrote a book for guys too makes a big difference. Probably my biggest peeve with these topics in general is that they always seem to be aimed only at women, but it looks like you considered both sides...unless of course your book is all about how men should blame all their problems on women!

    I'm interested to see what you have to say on the whole topic. I found, when I started writing about it (and I still have two posts in the works) was not that it seemed like bad advice on the surface--most of it seems pretty reasonable, actually. It was that it seemed to bring so much negative baggage with it, much of which crops up in other places among conservative and, I would say, specifically American Catholics. Puritanism, or whatever you want to call it.

    1. Ha Ha. That should be the title for my new book "Well, She gave me the apple! 101 ways to find a woman to blame for your problems."

      I agree that it isn't necessarily bad advice. It is reactionary advice, which always runs the risk of being taken too far.

  2. As you mentioned, I think fear of hell serves a very important purpose, but not just for 2 year olds but for adults as well. In St. Ignatius's Spiritual Exercises, there is a part in the retreat where you ask for the grace to understand better sin and its punishments. St. Ignatius asks " beg for a deep sense of the pain which the lost suffer, that if, because of my faults, I forget the love of the Eternal Lord, at least the fear of these punishments will keep me from falling into sin" (65). Although love of God is the better reason to do good and avoid evil, sometimes, due to our fallen human nature, even people who love God may need a little kick in the pants. I think its only in heaven, when we no longer experience the effects of original sin, that we will experience completely that Love Based Ethics which you describe.

    That being said, I think we naturally move away from fear and toward love the more we are in communion with God. Yes, we pursue the Good, but keeping in mind that Good has a Name. The more we encounter Him, the more time we spend with Him, the more we meditate on scripture with Him, the more we spend time with Him in Eucharistic adoration and receive Him in Holy Communion, the better we know Him personally and the more deeply our hearts burn for Him. We move away from fear and towards love.

    Again, because of our fallen human nature and the temptations we experience from the world, the devil, and the flesh, its nice to have that "fear of punishment" as a backup. Children, who love their parents deeply, still at times get into trouble and sometimes fear of punishment is the only thing that keeps them from some of the mischievous things that kids do. Adults, too, are but children of the Father.

    1. You are true, and I have used those same arguments before to respond to people who thought that the Ten Commandments were obsolete because we are now under the "Law of Love." It's just that I am trying to find a way to balance the need for a realistic understanding of hell, with the theological virtue of hope. I am trying to move from one to the other.

  3. Yeah, I'm right there with you on the fear based ethics. I've been reading quite a bit on the "Cult of Purity" and the abstinence based education maelstrom since Elizabeth Smart came out to say she's against teaching abstinence only. And who can blame her since she went through an absolutely horrifying ordeal of being repeatedly raped for years, only to come out the other side and be told that she is a "used, chewed up piece of gum" and nobody will want her now. I find the fear based ethics proponents have no room within their philosophies for redemption and forgiveness. There is only your ***SIN*** and that's all. You're going to hell. Done. Of course, I'm not an advocate of doing away with teaching that hell exists and that your actions can put you there, because that's just plain truth. I suppose, if I had kids and was teaching them about these things, I would want to instill in them a healthy Fear of the Lord (hey isn't that a virtue??), teach them all about sexuality and the beauty of the human body as God made them, and then let the chips fall where they may. Not a perfect approach by any means...but I'm only I'm working on it too.