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  • In praise of modesty

    Gene Miller

    Do those of us who behave immodestly do so because we resent our mortality?


    WHEREVER YOU STORE OLD LOVE LETTERS, pics of your exes, slowly fading family photos, those Broadway “Cats” ticket stubs—a cigar box, a binder, under the spare linens—please write four words, “The Death of Modesty” (with or without a question mark at the end—your call), on a sheet of paper, date it, then tuck it into your collection of treasures.

    I’ll explain.

    Apart from certain religions whose imperatives attempt to constrain the appetites and consumption behaviour of adherents, modesty would seem not to be broadly social or community-based—in other words, not a public value or practice. Yes, we say, “Waste not, want not,” but while we advise humanity not to waste, we don’t tell it not to want.

    Instead, modesty comes off more as an individual practice, the result of a personal emotional and spiritual process, perhaps, a hard-won agreement between the mind and the heart about the management of appetite.

    Modesty is about the self-management of craving: will over hunger in all its forms, you might say. But the fossil record (right to present times) suggests that under certain natural conditions modesty has its price and is subject to a rule: consume (or be very good at hiding) or be someone’s lunch.

    In current times, a modest life, a turning away from the values and acts of acquisition and consumption, can seem heroic and almost saintly, which is to say, out of the ordinary if not a bit weird. Saying no to more may well involve a personal struggle—some conscious journey into values and choices—and others may find it hard to fathom the modestee’s reasons and motivations; it sets one apart and suggests “uncomfortable” moral intensity.

    Of course, modesty, like other conditions calling for judgement, may be a matter not of principle, but of degree. Acquisition, consumption and never-ceasing need for more may form the core of social ideology. Still, we reserve a word for insatiable hunger for things, the failure or unwillingness to say no to too much, the seemingly pathological failure even to recognize or acknowledge the idea of too much, even in our culture of too much: greed.

    Greed, also known as unchecked appetite, has a moral valence; it hints at bad mental wiring, moral deformity, obsession, a distortion of the self’s landscape and boundaries, a false and damaging view of the world. In our Grimm-Brothers-fairy-tales-imagination, we want people who are greedy to look greedy: grotesque gobblers, repulsive hoarders, people who appear to put their hungry arms around everything (or around themselves) in some fevered act of self-securitization, self-safety.

    We have plenty of cultural messaging around wants and needs, and sufficient social radar so that when caught red-handed wanting something, we are quick to recast and justify it as a need. We regard greed as want taken too far, a moral disease akin to the difference between people who like to pet small animals and those who like to squeeze the life out of small animals.

    But consider how, in an almost mystical act of cultural nuancing, we don’t call our business titans and zillionaires greedy. In fact, we lionize them. And in the corporate milieu we call greed “strategic acquisition and positioning.” You will have noticed, though, that we are entering a time when corporations, the über-wealthy and even the not-so-über are coming in for excoriation as wealth-gobblers, hoarders, have-ers of more than their share: if they have more, we have less. The era feels eruptive, existential, ready for a fight or a spasm. It wouldn’t be the first time that free-market social Darwinism had a comeuppance.

    The dictionary claims greed is “an insatiable longing for material gain, be it food, money, status or power.” The inclusion of status and power is revealing. Greed, Webster’s continues, is “an inordinate desire to acquire or possess more than one needs.”

    What’s the source or locus of that “insatiable longing?” What would an “ordinate desire” look like? How much does a person need?

    The etymology of greed emphasizes this idea of voracious, incorporative, assimilative hunger. The German word for greed, habsüchtig, translates roughly as “having sickness.” In other words, greed renders appetite pathological. Still, we say: “Why rent when you can own?”

    The Indian godhead Meher Baba believed that greed “is a state of restlessness of the heart, and it consists mainly of craving for power and possessions which are sought for the fulfillment of desires. Man is only partially satisfied in his attempt to fulfill his desires, and this partial satisfaction fans and increases the flame of craving instead of extinguishing it. Thus greed always finds an endless field of conquest and leaves the man endlessly dissatisfied.”

    Meher Baba raises provocative questions: what is the fulfillment of desire, what is the locus, the taproot, of this “endless dissatisfaction”—an impulse distributed to every cell of our being, the same thing that makes a tree “want” to grow a new branch? The dictionary defines, but he explains greed, giving it the larger frame it clearly requires. My friend Denton speculates that greed might in part be some recapitulation in the form of sensibility and behaviour of the physical architecture of the nervous system, some principle of consolidation: the gathering of nerves within the spinal column and their urgent, expanding highway to the brain.

    All explanations, though, even Meher Baba’s, overlook a natural fact: the sheer exhaustion of things. Everything tires, degenerates and re-arranges eventually, everything on Earth and, cosmic science explains, even the Earth itself.

    The MiceTimes of Asia (yes, a real thing) provocatively suggests that the greedy forget one simple fact: “that life on this Earth is not eternal.” This assertion opens a line of thought that may have crossed your mind: that the condition of mortality hovers at the edge of any explanation of greed.

    Which leads to the speculation that greed—that hunger for more—is a grab at eternity, the life impulse itself, the spark that fills us with a desire to live forever and makes us unable to imagine the world without us. This generates in the human imagination a profound resentment of Nature that has given life and will take it back. We say, “I don’t want to die!” and we really mean it. We don’t want to die because when the music stops playing, the dance is over. When consciousness ends, imagination collapses. Our “ownership” of everything we compass through our eyes and thoughts ends. We imagine we own and eventually, jarringly discover we were just borrowing. Tragic!

    In this formulation, greed is, or is about, power: the power to live forever, to surround ourselves with stuff, to absorb both its literal and symbolic energy, its cushion-value as protection against finality.

    Wanting to live forever (nothing stops you from wanting), is against the terms and principles of life, and we fight this impasse with the same anger and umbrage we feel toward the parental, non-negotiable “Why? Because I told you so.”

    Nature is, in this sense, the ultimate parent, and in a bizarre act of self-destructive, anti-ecological spite, we attempt to appropriate nature’s secrets and powers, and try to kill the world. Ego set against eco.

    In Age of Anger, Pankaj Mishra, reviewing 250 years of European history, references the gigantic intellectual project led by European and Russian intelligentsia in the early 1800s that produced “the view of God as only an idealized projection of human beings rather than a Creator.”

    Think, in this macro-historical way, of current ecological collapse at our hands as a next and possibly last chapter in some weird, profound, evolutionary oedipal re-enactment.

    Greed isn’t rational; it starts in a deeper, darker place and generates nothing but mystery and answerless questions regarding accumulation as an expression of securing a future. “More life, fucker” says bioengineered, Frankensteinian Roy Batty, with his inbuilt four-year life span, to his human maker in the movie Bladerunner. What are all of us if not bioengineered? Roy’s four, our eighty….

    More life, fucker.

    Returning through this set of speculations to our starting point, I’d like to propose a role for Victoria as consumption-driven global ecological damage intensifies and the danger-points quickly multiply beyond correction: “The Capital of Modesty.” That is, Victoria as social sanity and demonstration: living within means, a model of ecological truth, a place that practices and communicates a message to the hungry, greedy, crazy world about living modestly with and in nature; making a peace of it; greeting the newborn, burying the dead. Surviving. Continuing.

    Victoria, named for a queen, flirts with, then, losing nerve, retreats from this exalted, leaderly and crucial role that history offers it—the role (a complicated, somewhat selfless and thankless but necessary task, really) well expressed by lines in Tennyson’s lengthy story-poem, The Princess, A Medley:

    “She stretched her arms and called

    Across the tumult and the tumult fell.”

    Founder of Open Space and co-founder of Monday Magazine, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept.

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