The Unique Challenge of Building a Life of Substance

Arnold Siegel
4 min readMay 7, 2019

Strength of character is not innate. It’s not something that life just naturally provides. It’s won. The hard way. To be taken seriously, to be in control of our heart, our mind, our words and deeds — to be substantive — takes work. A lot of work as we learn to “get over” ourselves, over the petty and stingy and over immature emotional dependencies and failures of nerve.

Substance here refers to the mental and transcendent character distinctive to an individual. It is valued by the individual and esteemed by others. Why? Because, in part, it is a sign of our ability to control fear and anxiety and face a demanding situation in a spirited and resilient way. In fact, the quality and depth of our substantive or personal authority depends on our ability to get subjective control of what’s on our mind, of our thinking and of our voice. And we admire those able to sustain such commitment, responsibility and compassion through the most troubling times. The display of courage, generosity and honor — in the face of challenge — commands our respect.

Certainly, we need this substance. We live in a rivalrous world. The demand to produce results never ends, and the competition for life and lifestyle goes on forever. Yet, even as we’re becoming more competent in the marketplace, for example, or in the business of running a home (or a life), we recognize another demand. The humane call on contribution and conscience, on integrity and fair play, on hope, good faith and love. We hear these calls as transcendent obligations, which they are. They are also the means to a profound presence of mind, to intellectual happiness and to the emotional expansiveness that leads to genuine care, concern and generosity.

But think of the territory we have to traverse to get here — to this substantive dimension of life.

Beasts without language, including the pre-linguistic animals we were eons ago, have no subjective referential capacity to get over their primal instincts. Virtually everything about an animal’s behavior is determined by do-or-die immediacy, impulse, appetite and habit. Over this ruled-by-nature system of stored responses awaiting stimulus, they have no narrative or descriptive control.

Arnold Siegel

Philosopher, Contemporary American thinker, Founder of Autonomy and Life