Thoughts on Substance

by Jinryu

It’s been a long term since I’ve thought about the word “substance.” I didn’t invent the word, but I think I started using it the way I did because I couldn’t quite figure out a way to describe the “stuff” that people are made of. I think that the term has fallen a bit out of my usual vocabulary, mostly because my terminology started changing a bit ever since I started playing baduk. There’s something about using japanese terms (I don’t actually speak japanese) which someone adds a certain amount of novelty and mystery to a concept. Using foreign terms instantly adds +10 to credibility, because the term itself is somehow loaded enough to warrant using the original foreign word, and not some half un-nuanced translation.

I think that whenever it comes to figuring out things about life, there needs to be a vocabulary involved. I’m not saying this expressly with the idea of japanese terms in mind– I mean, there are a lot of other words that I borrow from other languages every now and then. My point is just that there needs to be some sort of identification of concepts in order to think about them modularly.

On the other hand, a word’s definition can be used with such categorical power that it obscures the big picture. So, no matter what kind of terminology we’re using, whether it’s specific or broad, the more specific it is, the more broadly we need to understand it; conversely, the more broad the concept, the more specifically we need to understand its application.

So anyway, back to substance.

It’s a “good stuff” kind of stuff, but really, how would you describe it?

Substance is not necessarily charisma
It’s not exactly charisma– although people with substance, when you get to know them, might be charistmatic. It’s not always the case though.

I mean, someone could be totally awesome at something, They could be totally freaking badass, but they’re absolutely impossible to get along with. Think, for example, Mohammed Ali– incredible amounts of substance, but, if you were in the same profession as him during his prime, he was absolutely infuriating. But you couldn’t deny that he had something. Some sorta “gung-fu.” Something about him that you could fear as much as you could respect.

Substance is not physical strength
And on the other hand… I’ll give you a very simple example. Doing martial arts doesn’t mean I’m necessarily good at deffending myself, but what it does give me is a pretty accurate understanding how humans are really quite fragile. (Which is probably why a lot of my concept of street fighting has to do with pretending to beg for mercy, and then unleashing a sudden finishing move.) So, basically, what I mean is– if I was standing face to face with someone, I could really hurt someone just like that. Break a nose. Poke out an eye. Punch someone in the throat. Pull their hair. Whatever. In fact, you could do it too, and that’s my point: anyone could hurt anyone, given an opportunity. My point though is that this doesn’t necessarily make me a bigger man (it wouldn’t make you a bigger man or woman either) if you did actually hurt someone.

Take… for example… Ghandi. Mother Theresa. Felix Mandella. They’re so fragile as humans, as are we all. Much more fragile than, say, your typical WWE wrestler, or even the more mundane guys and gals that you see at the gym every day.

But if suddenly, you decided to initiate a fistfight with Ghandi (especially Ghandi), who do you think people would say won the fight? You could beat an old man like Ghandi (in his prime) to a pulp– but people would still think you were the loser. Which contrasts with the situation when you pick a fistfight with Mohammed Ali (who would beat the living shit out of you). If you picked a fight with Mohammed Ali, and he beat the crap out of you, people would still think you were a total shithead: they’d still say he won. So how is it that either way, you “lost”? Why is it that either way, you’re a loser?

What I’m getting at is that substance, in many contexts, has nothing to do with physical strength. In relativity, you could be physically stronger than someone, or physically weaker than someone, but that won’t be why people measure you to have less substance than someone.

This is observation, that substance is not physical strength, is something that people often forget. Or rather, it’s something we take as granted. Take for example the masculine, patriarchal world we live in. The assumption that men have made (and continue to make) is that men have more substance than women in the majority of contexts. Indeed, even women make this mistake. If someone says the word “soldier” or “police officer” the majority of us will think of men. The “doctor” figure is the ‘medical expert’ and is typically the man, wheras women are regarded as lower in the social heirarchy– they’re the nurses, that is to say, the women who are subordinates of the men of medicine.

I’m being highly exaggerative, but consider it: how many situations do you know of place men in a privleged position, simply because they’re men, and that the reasoning behind this is somehow that their strength, either actual physical strength or some associated persona of agressiveness, is equated with substance?

Substance is not just willpower
At the same time, it’s not something that’s simply willpower, or intent, or having resolution. For example… I don’t know the complete story of what’s going on in Montreal with the university protests, but from my position reading the newspaper reports, it sounds like a buncha spoiled lazy students who are upset that they’ll have to pay a bit more for their tuition. So, they’ve taken up this habit of “occupying” the administrative buildings, and then they get all upset when McGill University, after days of restraint, calls up police to basically say, okay okay, you’ve had your fun, but now you have to get the fuck off our private property so we can get some work done. And then these students start mouthing off about power to students, and fighting against authority, and all that stuff.

I’m for student activism mind you, but there’s a certain point when activism is winning through minor-terrorism. Sure, you may get what you want in the end, but does that justify your means? Is throwing a collective tantrum, even if you manage to do so with megaphones and a lot of people, enough?

I guess what I’m getting at is that I don’t recognise substance in people who can’t be rational, and can’t be helpful to the problems they’re denouncing. In the case of the student protests– okay, I see your point. Tuition hikes are bad. But if you want to really do something about this situation, it’s not enough to show solidarity, it’s not enough to show off your fighting spirit– show me a solution. And at that, make it a realistic one. Otherwise, you’re just bitching, you’re really just riling everyone up for nothing. You know, McGill University actually runs an annual debt? And you’re saying that they can’t raise tuition? Where do you think they should get the money from?

What I’m saying is that there needs to somehow be an intersection between what you want and what is possible. You can’t just will something to happen just because, essentially, you’re this emotional enough about a subject. Your anger, indignation, etc… it’s not enough. So while willpower is part of substance, there needs to be a practical element to it.

Substance should probably be applicable in several contexts
Some people are good at certain things, but people with real substance seem to be good at lots of things. And it’s not just that they are good at X, Y, and Z– rather, they are good at A, which is something that is useful in X, Y, and Z. In other words, substance isn’t a technical skill– it’s the mechanics or mentality or philosophy behind the development of specific skills. It is the philosophy of the garage, rather than the quality of a particular hammer or screwdriver.

It might be an intersection
That said, substance might be related to some sort of intersection between several of the mentioned elements, in varying degrees. As in… it’s not enough to have willpower. But you might need it in conjunction with physical strength, with charisma, etc.

I dunno. These are just random thoughts.

The question is… how does one acquire more substance? I guess that’s the big mystery.

…I suppose that’s why we go to school, isn’t it?