It has been remarked that the modest deportment of really wise men, when contrasted to the assuming air of the vain and ignorant, may be compared to the difference of wheat, which, while its ear is empty, holds up its head proudly, but as soon as it is filled with grain bends modestly down and withdraws from observation. Thus with true worth and merit: it is uniformly modest in deportment. It is only the shallow-pated who strive to attract attention by pretentious claims. The ocean depths are mute; it is only along shallow shores that the roar of the breakers is heard.
It is not difficult to draw the line between self-reliance and modesty on the one hand, and self-esteem and arrogant pretensions on the other. True self-reliance does not call on all men to witness its exploits. It displays itself in action. It may be reserved in deportment, but quietly and modestly proceeds in the path that wisdom points out, with a steady reliance on its own powers. Not so self-esteem. Its boast is that it is sufficient for all things; which, to be sure, were not so bad, were it not for the fact that, when put to the test by necessity, it so quickly abandons its pretentious claims, and, forgetting to use its own powers, is anxious only for the aid of others.
Modesty is a beautiful setting to the diamond of talents and genius. The mark of the truly successful man is absence of pretensions. He talks in only ordinary business style, avoids all brag, dresses plainly, promises not at all, performs much, speaks monosyllables, hugs his fact. He calls his employment by its lowest name, and so takes from evil tongues their sharpest weapon. Who made more wide and sweeping discoveries, of more far-reaching consequences, than Newton? Yet listen to his modest confession: “I know not what the world may think of my labors, but to myself it seems as though I had been but a child playing on the seashore, now finding some pebble rather more polished, and now some shell rather more agreeably variegated than another, while the immense ocean of truth extended itself unexplored before me.” Thus it is always found that modesty accompanies great merit, and it has even been said that merit without modesty is generally insolent in expression.
The greatest events in the world’s history dawned with no more noise than the morning star makes in rising. All great developments complete themselves in the world, and modestly wait in silence, praising themselves never, and announcing themselves not at all. If “honesty be the best policy,” we can not deny that modesty, as a matter of policy even, hath a rare virtue. What so quickly commands our good wishes as modesty struggling under discouragement? what our sympathy more than modesty struck down by affliction? or what our respect and love more than modesty ministering to the distresses of others? There is no surer passport to the favors of others than modesty of deportment. It will succeed where all else has failed to waken in the minds of others an interest in our affairs. It is to merit as shades to figures in a picture, giving it strength and beauty.
Modesty is not bashfulness, though the two are often confounded. The bashfulness of timidity is constitutional, the bashfulness of credulity is pitiable, the bashfulness of ignorance is disreputable, but the bashfulness allied to modesty is a charm. There are two distinct sorts of bashfulness. The one is awkwardness joined to pride, which, on a further acquaintance with the world, will be converted into the pertness of a coxcomb. The other is closely allied to modesty. It is a painful consciousness of self, which is produced by our most delicate feelings, and which the most extensive knowledge can not always remove. In undermining and removing bashfulness, due regard is to be had to the adjacent modesty, good nature, and humanity, as those who pull down private houses adjoining imposing buildings are careful to prop up such parts as are endangered by the, removal.
Bashfulness in itself can not be admired. It completely distrusts its own powers, whereas we have seen that a proper reliance on self is at all times highly commendable. Bashfulness in man is never to be allowed as a good quality, but a weakness, inasmuch as it suppresses his virtues and hides them from the world, when, had he a mind to exert himself, he might accomplish much good. We doubt not but there are many fine intellects passing for naught by reason of their bashfulness.
Modesty is far different from reserve. Reserve partakes more of the nature of sullen pride. It is haughty in demeanor, and hath not the sweet, retiring disposition of modesty. A reserved man is in continual conflict with the social part of his nature, and even grudges himself the laugh into which he is sometimes betrayed. The modest man does not refuse to perform his part socially. His only dread is that others may think he is trying to center attention on himself. The really modest man may be the most social of men. The reserved man thinks it is beneath him to mingle with the mass of the people.
Modesty never counsels real merit to conceal itself. It never bids one refuse to act when action is necessary, and the person is conscious that his powers are adequate for the performance of the task. Nor when a good deed is to be done should the modest man hesitate to come forward to do it, providing he is capable of so doing. Modesty counsels none to be backwards where duty points the way; but modesty strictly forbids that when a good or meritorious action is done that the performer should spread abroad the story of his doings. Leave that for others to do.
Modesty is the crowning ornament of womanly beauty, and the honor of manly powers. It alike becomes every age, giving new grace to youthful figures, and imparting a pleasing virtue to years. It softens the asperities of poverty and is a beautiful setting for wealth and fortune. It gives additional charms to the possessor of genius and talents, or cunningly conceals the want of the same. It is the key that unlocks alike the gate to success or the door of love and respect. It makes life pleasant to the one who exercises the virtue, and charities bestowed by its hand are worth far more to the recipient than their mere pecuniary value.
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