The other day, Simcha Fisher posted about modesty, kicking off the annual Catholic Blogosphere discussion of that perennial topic. I read the post, which was reasonable, and then the 200+ comments, many of which were not--but I had a good reason: I was "test driving" a new contact lens prescription, and the Register's comment box print is quite tiny (which may be the reason people get bent out of shape over there: "Oh, gosh, that commenter didn't call me a lunatic after all; she said I was a fanatic, and clearly she meant it kindly...etc.").
Now, before you start running for the hills, this post of mine is NOT about modesty. I've written enough about that topic. We can all agree on that.
Instead, what I want to talk about is something I noticed in that comment box conversation, something that happens in lots of conversations both online and in real life, and it is this: sometimes people try nicely to give others good advice, which is a good thing; but other times people like to give out judgment dressed up as advice, and that's not such a good thing.
What is the difference?
To use the modesty conversation from Simcha's comment box as an example, here's a look. Simcha wrote a funny post about trying to find something decent but still cool to wear in the heat in New Hampshire, which I understand is what we'd call a nice, cool day here in Texas, but then again in New Hampshire lots of places still don't have central air conditioning, so they still get hot when the temperature soars way above 75 degrees or so.
Some people responded quite nicely to the spirit of the post and made practical, helpful suggestions as to where a mother of nine children might be able to find some decent and affordable cool clothing options.
Other people, however, insisted that nobody needs to wear Capri pants and t-shirts, that all Catholic women know that the rules for dressing modestly are based on what the Blessed Virgin wears and what was written in the 1930s or so about "two fingers below the collar bone" etc., and that further every Catholic woman should shop at this or that modest dress/modest skirt store that offers plenty of decent skirts and dresses for somewhere between $60 to $100 for a skirt and $100 to $150 for a dress. They implied, and in some cases came right out and said, that any Catholic woman who doesn't do this is failing to dress modestly and is putting her priorities into things like smartphones and high-tech gadgets instead of skirts and dresses that will not cause the men around her to fall into the sin of lust (because everybody knows that a pair of baggy capri pants with a t-shirt will drive all the boys wild, while a lace blouse paired with a demure skirt with a flirty mid-calf hem reminds a decent man that the woman thus clad is her sister in Christ and the daughter of the Blessed Mother, of course). And if she really, really can't afford those skirts and those dresses, why, thrift stores, or learn to sew in your spare time--but she could probably afford those clothes just fine if she wasn't such a spendthrift in the other areas of her life.
And the point of such "advice" is to sit in judgment on another person, which, as Simcha's post today points out, is something we probably all do but shouldn't.
What about areas other than clothing? Well, I've heard the one--you probably have too--about how Catholic homeschoolers are cheating the local Catholic schools out of their fair share of students, and how there's no reason a homeschooling family couldn't afford the local Catholic school. I used to get into arguments with people about this, pointing out that the local Catholic schools near me charge $5000 or $6000 per year per child, while the local Catholic high school is between thirteen and fifteen thousand per year per student depending on whether your parish supports the school (and including the fees, textbook costs, and required uniforms). But I was wasting my time, because people told me we ought to be able quite easily to afford $18,000 for grade school and (now that our girls are in high school) $45,000 per year for all three of them to attend the Catholic high school in the area. If we had just made it a priority for them to do this, including putting them in day care when they were babies so I could earn a full time income along with my husband, we'd be fine. Instead, we selfishly chose to live on one income and have me be a stay-at-home mom, depriving our children of the chance to go to diocesan Catholic schools. Oh, and we probably took vacations (we don't, except to see and stay with relatives once every four or five years), and had smartphones (we didn't until my husband needed one for work last year; I still don't have one and don't want one), and so on. The worst part about that last bit was that I heard that from a parish priest (not our current parish) in his homily: he essentially said that people needed to be sending their kids to the parish school, and that everyone there could afford to do so if we just gave up our luxury spending on vacations and gadgets and the like. I just sighed; it still boggles my mind how many Catholic priests think that Catholic families in America are all extremely wealthy, except for a few unfortunate souls who didn't buy start-up tech stock back in the 90s or something.
To be fair, I've heard homeschoolers do this kind of judging too: we can, and do, cross the line from being enthusiastic about homeschooling and encouraging to those who are interested in it to offering judgment dressed up as advice to people who say they can't fathom homeschooling themselves. I think I've gotten a bit better about this over the years, because there's a big difference between the person who says, "Oh, you homeschool? I've always wanted to do that, but I'm afraid of X (and sometimes Y and W)..." and the person who says, "You homeschool? Well, bless your heart, but I could never do that." The first person might actually want real advice and encouragement, but the second probably doesn't, and may think you are judging her for choosing not to homeschool if you launch into homeschool cheerleading. Worse, you might actually be judging her for choosing not to homeschool. It's better to back off and remember that not everybody is called to homeschool, and it really doesn't work for everyone.
So, how do you know when you're honestly offering friendly advice to someone and when you're just offering judgment dressed up as advice? The Golden Rule is probably the best go-to in this situation. Ask yourself: Would I be pleased and grateful to get this advice, in these words, from someone else? Why or why not? You'll probably be able to tell whether or not you are offering the advice in the right spirit and with the right motives if you think about it.