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.
We modern human beings are also host to this ancient simple-reflex wiring but, of course, it’s not a natural fit for the transcendent character required today. However, our subjective capacity makes it possible for us to transcend or rise above this visceral immediacy in favor of practices that we regard as rational, decent, meaningful or civilized.
But few of us can see where we lack substance. And few of us can see the distressing price we pay for its absence. This is because we automatically blame any kind of suffering on someone or something else.
Real substance — real depth — is, as I said, hard-won and incrementally and diligently earned and built.
- We must struggle against inborn resistances as well as prevailing attitudes.
- Intellectual integrity and moral resource must be pioneered and their claim staked in an environment already embellished by bling, compromised by false fronts and pocked by corruptions of meaning and purpose.
- We must translate the mean-spiritedness and wall of anxiety called up by the circumstance, as well as the rough and ready instincts to which we are born, into tempered expressions of restraint, cooperation, mature competition and joy.
The difficult part of rising to life’s unceasing demands with wisdom, nerve and substance is to persist even when all our energy has been sapped by anxiety or misdirected by the show-off rewards of a ruthless, heartless rivalry. Leaders are not persons of metaphysical qualities or semi-divine origins. Leaders change the world and rise to the demand when they emerge from the reflexive, rivalrous condition and circumstance and stand for projections and hopes that exceed what has often become corrupted in business, politics and everyday life. And the secret to being fully human and to the successful activism and leadership that make a difference is to perfect the substance of who we are.
Can we be stymied, challenged, even deterred? Yes. But through much experience and practice, we can acquire a never-quit, decisive, stand-up responsibility for our condition and circumstance when we recognize and respond creatively and effectively to the private and public demands on our autonomy. Although this substance lives metaphorically in our heart, our spine or our guts, it feels like an uncommon confidence — a core bedrock of personal inner strength.
However, our effort to perfect who we are doesn’t mean we’ll succeed every time. But mistakes, failures or disappointments themselves are not a defeat. The realization of our unique hope for ourselves and for humankind lies in our ability to confront these situations that test the character of our substance. Today, tomorrow and for the rest of our lives.
I’ve been teaching classes on autonomy and life for over 30 years. These classes offer a unique and powerful governing philosophy for practical living. They stand firmly on America’s promise of freedom, justice and equality and the opportunity to create a life of our own design. More information is available on my website: autonomyandlife.com.