An (im)modest proposal on modesty

(This column appeared in The Sault Star June 2, 2023)

I was accused recently of being too modest.

Really. I’m not bragging.

It happened before a theatrical event (I had been cast to type, as a member of the audience), when a woman smiled at me as if she knew me.

That compelled me to smile back at her as if I knew her. In truth, I couldn’t place her for the life of me.

This sort of preamble to socially awkward conversation happens way too often these days. 

It’s partly because I’m a senior. My memory powers, modest to begin with, are waning.

And appearances changed so much during the Covid gap years that my brain gropes for a name even when confronting my own face in the mirror.

As well, strangers sometimes recognize me from the mugshot on this column, which, in a sort of reverse Dorian Gray, hasn’t aged one bit in a number of years.

Is it immodest to illustrate this column with a previously published photo of the author grinning immodestly? You decide.

In this case, that was the case.

After confirming that I was not Tom Mills the astrophysicist or Tom Mills the mass-murderer, the woman made some flattering comments about my writing.

I responded, as I generally do, with some self-deprecating (but possibly true) remark to the effect that any marginally literate person with a questionable sense of humour could do what I do.

“Oh, you’re too modest,” she laughed.

Upon reflection, I had to agree with her, and not just because I’m also too agreeable.

“People are always telling me that,” I replied. 

“Excessive modesty must be my greatest sin.”

The expression on her face changed, she spotted someone else she thought she recognized and she dashed off, leaving me to bask immodestly in the glow of my clever repartee.

Continuing on in that vein (or perhaps vain) of self-evaluation, I had to admit that modesty is one of my strong suits. 

In fact, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in all of Algoma as modest as I am.

Not to blow my own horn, but some might consider me to be one of those MOATs — Modestest Of All Time.

I could almost feel my head shrinking. Must be all the humility, I thought.

But then it occurred to me that being described as too modest might not actually be a compliment.

Think of a lot of those other “too” phrases, like “you’re too good to me” (which might mean “stop bringing me your leftover meatloaf”) or “you’re too kind” (which might mean “I can walk down a flight of stairs without someone pushing me from behind”).

Some of them have a touch of irony to them, or perhaps deliberate insincerity.

“Too modest” might be like “too smart for his own good,” “too clever by half,” “too big to fail,” or “too beautiful to live”: a thinly veiled insult that some people are too thick to catch on to.

As the above suggest, some “too” expressions are actually backhanded criticisms, like “protest too much” (meaning to deny an accusation so strenuously that it must be true) or “too big for his own britches.”

At this point in my contemplations I was too befuddled to know if I was too modest, too immodest or just had a modest amount of modesty. 

But clearly, when it comes to the virtue of modesty, there can be too much of a good thing.

Thankfully, in this business it’s not hard to find someone out there who thinks your writing talent is decidedly modest.

Yep, there are always generous servings of humble pie on life’s banquet table.

We’re never too old to learn that lesson.

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