Flash vs. Substance

[If you liked my piece on Transition and Turbulence, maybe you’ll like this too. It might also work as an entry in the Book of Good Living.]

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We live our lives on a human stage.

Which means: A great deal of the stuff we do, we do for the benefit of the people around us.

And by “benefit,” I don’t necessarily mean “to help them,” although that can be a part of it. I mean this: “Human stage” implies an audience of some sort, and that audience is the people around us. They see us, they watch us, they applaud or boo or simply stand by indifferently as we go through each day.

But they notice. And we notice them, and the fact that they watch. We work for it. For their approval. Their admiration, or adulation. Their envy. Their love. Their fear. Even their hate.

Much of what we do is done for THEM. We caper and dance and act out our lives – throwing in calculated dramatic pauses, vocal nuances, facial expressions, and so much more – with them in mind.

Being on stage can mean that literally, as an actor projects words, emotions, and actions at a live audience, or it can mean something as simple and apparently private as what we choose to wear as we prepare for our daily foray out in public.

The daily process of being human, therefore, consists of a spectrum of actions that are aimed between one extreme end, exclusively for our audience, and the other, exclusively for ourselves.

Audience actions “benefit” the people around us. Self actions benefit us.

I call the one “Flash,” and the other “Substance.” Flash entertains or influences others. Substance conveys an advantage for your own private benefit.

If you hang a dozen gold chains around your neck and sashay out into public, sure that every person you encounter is going to admire you, you’re doing Flash.

If you put up a convenient wall hook in your private workshop, something that will hold an often-used tool, you’re doing Substance.

If you exercise in the gym every day, sweating and working hard to build a trim, fit body, you’re doing Substance. But if you think other people will see and admire your strong studly self as you venture out with a muscle-revealing shirt, you’re also doing Flash.

Substance is learning something. Flash is showing off the knowledge in front of others. Substance is getting a Ph.D. in Education. Flash is hanging the certificate in your office where parents will see it. Substance is acquiring dependable transportation. Flash is making it a Ferrari.

Whether or not an audience ever sees what we do, the mere thought that they might can turn a private act into Flash. You might write poetry that, because of shyness, you never show to another living soul. But if you write it with other people constantly in mind, because you want it to stir their emotions or be liked by them if they ever do see it, you might still be doing almost pure Flash.

It’s only when you do an act exclusively for yourself, for your own benefit and no other, that you’re doing pure Substance.

The important point of all this is that there are limits to how far you should go in either direction. Considering the fact that you’re either an individual or a complete creation of the people around you, in the end you have to decide just what percentage of you that you’ll allow other people to own.

You can’t be totally self-involved and still live in human society. But you also can’t give yourself completely over to the attention or admiration of others.

Which means: Yes, the stage we act on has to include our human audience. But it also has to include some sort of “I” to do the acting. If you are a complete creation of the people around you, that pretty much makes you a nobody, a nothing, doesn’t it?

The author of the “autobiography” of an extremely well-known former child actor (whose initials only might be M.R., in case I’m revealing something I shouldn’t) once taught a writing class I attended. “What’s he really like?” I asked, when this detail of the writer-instructor’s career came out. He thought for a minute and answered “Even he doesn’t know. He’ll take up some hobby like oil painting, buy everything he needs to pursue it, and then be interested in it for a few days or a week and then just drop the brush and walk away and never touch it again. He grew up on stage and in front of the cameras, and his entire life has been devoted to an audience. He never developed any interests – any self – of his own.”

Yes, living in human society requires you to do some Flash. But considering that there’s a trade-off, that the time and money you spend doing Flash is taken away from the time and money you’re able to devote to the Substance of your own needs and well-being, how much of yourself should you give away to others?

It’s something we have to make on-the-fly decisions about, isn’t it? But it’s also something you can develop your own general rules about. You examine the whatever-it-is-you’re-doing and figure out how much of it is aimed at others, how much is meant to benefit yourself. And you adjust it according to standards you set up to safeguard your selfness.

I have a rule about clothing: “Hey, I’m willing to wear the stuff that looks good, but everything that goes on my body is damned sure going to feel good too. Or I’m not putting it on.” (Witness the fact that you will never see me in a tie.)

I have another rule about personal decoration: I occasionally admire tattoos on others. But I would never, ever get one myself. This skin is mine, and I don’t allow anybody else a claim on it.

I go to the gym about three times a week. Yes, I do it so I don’t turn into a big-assed pudge who waddles around embarrassingly in public, but I also do it to feel good.

Likewise, I’m mostly bald, but I would never, ever wear a hairpiece, or grow one of those silly comb-overs. You either take me as I am up there, or you automatically disqualify yourself as somebody whose opinion matters to me.

And yes, I’m an atheist. I do it because it matters to ME. Because it makes ME a better person. Of course I Flash it around on occasion, because I want more people to discover and understand it. But my original journey to freedom from religion was done completely in private, completely in my own head and years before I even told anybody about it, and was thus pure Substance.

How much of you is yours? This year? This week? This minute? And how much do you give over to others?

Think about it.

  • unbound

    But Flash saved every one of us!

    Sorry…couldn’t resist…

  • Finbarr

    That was, as always, brilliant. When I was deeply religious, I did almost everything for the benefit of others, my fellow-Christians, my priests and ‘leaders’ and of course God. I followed all the rules and so, like your child actor example, never really developed my own personality, interests or moral code. Despite how devout I was, it was almost all ‘flash’.

    When I became an atheist, it was jarring to leave all that behind, and I did suddenly feel like I had no identity of my own. I’ve been working on developing that over the past few years. Your distinction between flash and substance really rings true, I’ll definitely try to work on more substance in future!

  • kdan59

    Tim Tebow = Flash

    • Hank Fox

      Abso-fuckin-lutely. The FIRST thing I thought about Tebow, when I heard of him, was the very term: Flash.

      Gotta give the guy his chops for his skill at football, but the goddy part of it is pure posturing for a lowbrow audience.


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