The Cavalier Daily
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Seeking substance

IT SEEMS wrong for me to give advice to incoming first years. I don't have enough life on me to be handing out pearls of wisdom, to act as if I know something special. So I'll use a writer's favorite trick, and borrow from the best advice I ever received. It was an old mentor who told me "Remain a man of substance."

We often overlook substance in our hurried college lives. The University, by the very nature of its students, sets high standards of achievement. It seems that everyone is smart, hard-working and physically fit. Everyone is busy, socially nimble and on the path to a lucrative job or coveted graduate school slot. So we compete. That's how we got into this school, how we always succeed.

But frequently, in that rush to build a resume or develop marketable skills, something gets lost. That something is substance. Substance is hard, gritty stuff, gained only by much life. You don't come by it easily--a man or woman of substance must labor hard and long to gain the substance of selfhood, and never truly finishes. Substance is internal--the core of knowledge beneath a statement, the belief system that determines an action, the real person behind an external personality.

Substance is about growing up, about not giving in, about believing in certain things and knowing as facts certain others. Substance is about being unshakable. It's the process by which boys and girls become men and women.

It's not habit and it's not intolerance. It's knowing what's right for you, and never allowing others to determine your fate. It's about following what you know is right for yourself, and finding the peace of mind to let others do the same. And of course, substance is about the unending process of learning what it is that's right.

A person of substance is a thinker, a constructor of a philosophy built for one. A person of substance reads books, the kind of books that lead to revelations, but not necessarily better grades.

A person of substance is a learner. That person learns not just about computer programming or finance or law but about himself, other people, and the world he lives in. A learner needs to work at it, which means less time for status-building or prize-winning. But such things don't matter to learners, to people of substance. A learner simply wants to know a few things, to know as truths who she is, why she matters, and why other people matter just as much.

A man of substance learns other things too, like how to keep any promise he makes. He learns to speak when he has something to say and to remain silent the rest of the time. When he has a job to do, he learns to do it right, better than expected, and not to hang around for accolades. Those can go to other people.

A woman of substance makes herself matter. She makes a difference in the lives of others, just by her presence and the soundness and solidity of her character. She listens, she smiles sincerely. She knows the value of laughter, the elegance of simplicity, and the prodigious worth of silence.

A man of substance has a sense of style in the things he does. He carries himself with class, and treats others far better than he would ever expect to be treated. It was a wise writer who said that a man belongs to his secrets, and his secrets belong to him. A person of substance has secrets--the things that person knows to be true, knows to be right, and knows to matter. Those things don't change, despite the latest trends.

A man of substance belongs to his secrets and to nothing else. He doesn't turn his conscience over, not to any person or group, or for any amount, or to any lofty ambition. People of substance know, as Montaigne said, "how to belong to ourselves."

People of substance learn how to do things right, but more importantly, they learn to do the right things. Many students devote their four years at this University to moving into corporate life, running for public office, or securing a prestigious graduate school appointment. There's nothing wrong with that.

But there's something much more right about using some of that time to build a foundation of knowledge, principles and integrity. That foundation doesn't leave you, it doesn't become obsolete, and it's worth more than any credential on any resume ever could be. That foundation involves words like character, honor and respect, and it's the essence of a man or woman of substance. It is substance, the stuff that makes people who they are and roots them to something that doesn't change or falter. It insures that they will always matter.

I spent my first year here discovering the few things I really did know, and learning how much more I really didn't know. To pretend that I already am a person of great substance would be laughable, but I can tell you on my honor that it is a fun, challenging and rewarding path to follow.

Enjoy your time here. Pursue the things you used to think were impossible. Pursue your goals, your ambitions and your dreams. And pursue substance. (Tom Bednar is a rising third-year

College student. He is an opinion editor for The Cavalier Daily.)


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