American Culture

A contrarian’s disheartened view of loyalty

As I age, I increasingly ponder loyalty. Most of us, I suspect, have an understanding of it. Perhaps it’s a feeling that we’d crawl through burning oil and run across broken glass because the person to whom we are loyal needs it. And that person never asks; we merely give unreservedly.

Lately, however, loyalty I have awarded (given? allowed? presented? What is the word that best presents bestowal of loyalty?) has been strained. Is it because I have come to expect something in return? A little quid pro quo? If that attitude has emerged in me, I am saddened. But I fear it has. I am human: I have done for others without marked compensation or gratitude for so long … but now, am I finally seeking a little sugar for my faithful attention?

I used to advertise my loyalty and I don’t believe there is a single person I loved that I didn’t eventually betray.
― Albert Camus, The Fall

Loyalty for me has always been freely given with no expectation of reciprocity. Either in an instant, or over time, I have become loyal to you. You owe me naught. But 70 years old is no longer a distant horizon. Has the erosion of physical ability or the emergence of emotional and intellectual insecurity altered that equation? Do I now need something, somehow, from an individual or institution that has received unqualified, unquestioned loyalty from me?

Nearly half a century ago, a friend sent me a telegram from half a continent away. “I need help,” it said. I replied: “En route.” I fired up my old LandCruiser and drove through winter’s wrath to get to him. Loyalty? Obligation? Duty? All, perhaps. But if that same friend asked today, would I? No. The loyalty, the obligation, the duty have faded. Why? My friend went his way; I went mine. Connections frayed. Neither of us is to blame; life connects and disconnects.

We have to recognize that there cannot be relationships unless there is commitment, unless there is loyalty, unless there is love, patience, persistence.
― Cornel West, Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life

Usually, when young, we begin life with numerous connections. Friends galore: Hale many fellows, well met. After my discommodious departure from a university eons ago, I returned for a weekend visit the following autumn with a list of 50 names. By the following spring, only three names remained. Today, there is one. When she calls, and she has, I text: “En route.” Without question; without animus; rather, with the compulsion of love.

Loyalty given young can last until … well, death. But loyalty, while deep, can be fragile. Often, it cannot bear the weight of passing time. I have learned that … painfully.

Loyalty might be born in the fire of anger. I find it difficult to hate (but rather easy to be irritated). But two decades ago, I met a man who so frequently angered me I grew to hate him. Time eased that. Today, my loyalty to that person is unshakeable. But I think, unlike the blind award of loyalty by one person to another, this differed. He contributed to the exchange. He made the bestowal of loyalty possible because his award was congruent with mine.

If by my life or death I can protect you, I will.
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

The list of people to whom I am loyal has dwindled. But the ferocity of the loyalty I retain for those remaining few has not dimmed.

Why? I do not know. I have only questions.

Is the bestowal of loyalty a form of received wisdom? Did our teachers, parents, and clerics teach us that loyalty is a virtue and ought to be freely given without question? (Hell, that attitude died when I kissed Charlotte at age 12 and she told all her friends it was awful.)

Should I bestow loyalty to my country without question, even to the point of shouldering arms and killing for it because a leader says I must? Many do. They fight and often die. We honor them when they return, often wounded, often dead.

I don’t care a damn about men who are loyal to the people who pay them, to organizations…I don’t think even my country means all that much. There are many countries in our blood, aren’t there, but only one person. Would the world be in the mess it is if we were loyal to love and not to countries?
― Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana

Should I bestow loyalty to an idea in the weight of overwhelming evidence that the idea is wrong? Pick your poison here: Creationism, intelligent design, a 6,000-year-old Earth, various alleged causes of autism, the claims global climate disruption does not exist, and so on. The reverse is true: How steadfast should the loyalty be for those who believe in anything on that list? Loyalty can be as blind as it is deep.

Should I remain loyal to a president whose deeds belie his words? Nixon, Reagan, either Bush, Clinton, Obama? Men are fallible, particularly political men (and women). I am an American. I remain loyal to a Constitution that determines my rights and responsibilities. I am not compelled to bestow loyalty to those whose fealty to oath of office is flawed.

I would say exploit the stupid, because they’re expendable and loyal, but it’s a fact: politicians are not loyal.
― Jarod Kintz, This Book Has No Title

But should I remain loyal to the men and women in the three branches of that government who have, I believe, shown more loyalty to self and self-service than to the electorate — and me? To be blunt, no fucking way. How little loyalty they have shown me — and the larger us.

Edward Snowden is an American. Many call him a traitor. How should we measure his loyalty? To the rule of law? Or the spirit of the Constitution, which compels citizens to continually question those who govern the governed?

Loyalty, as I age, is fast moving into a tie with love as the most confusing of human values. That the two — loyalty and love — have indistinguishably commingled both comforts and vexes me.

No words of analysis live here, only compounding confusion. I treasure loyalty; I reward it; but I … damn it … increasingly feel the need to be rewarded for it. It is selfish, but is it understandable? And is it forgivable?

It gives me strength to have somebody to fight for; I can never fight for myself, but, for others, I can kill.
― Emilie Autumn, The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls

10 replies »

  1. that was a good post, but i must add a little. i am about the same age, so we have been through the same time period. i was taught loyalty be my dad, starting with the grocery store he supported. his dad and grandfather both own a grocery store. i had to go back to the store and apologize for stealing something from it. i do not remember what it was, i was very young. to this day i try to be loyal to stores, but that can be lost if they treat me bad just once. i now have ran a small retail shop for over 25 years and i can tell you there is very little loyalty in people these days. i personally believe there should be more of it. i do understand it can be lost so it needs to be earned sometimes, but not always. i am loyal to our service men. it is not there fault they are called on to do things that should not be done. it was terrible the way we treated our returning soldiers from veit nam. it was there bosses that did the dirty work, they were just following orders and most did not want to be there.

    when i was a teen i was very confident and when a friend was being beat up by a gang i stepped in and stopped it, but someone came from behind knocked me out and really worked me over, my friend did not help. my so called friend toke off and i ended up with a concussion. it was a good lesson to watch my back better. going to a concert there were 2 kids beating up an older man, i stepped in and stopped it, this time with out any damage to my self. i felt it was right. humanity tells me to try and help someone in need, i believe there should be more of it not less. sometimes the person you are helping do not deserve it. you will not know until later. trying to stop something bad from happening i believe it is a moral thing to do. even at my own risk. if someone was hurting someone else i would try and stop it even at the cost of my own life if it is a life and death situation. it is just my make up, maybe from watching to many of the real out good guy bad guy cereals on tv. certainly i would protect my self also. helping someone i do not know just seems the right thing to do. if someone is only abusing my loyalty they can lose my loyalty and has been done. i also have a loyalty to humanity. i will try to help someone in need at the cost of my life should the sitiation call for it. there are people i would not help. people, i will not help them that have done me wrong before. they are on their own, loyalty yes but certainly not unconditionally. the service men deserve it, the government has proved they do not. most politicians do not. most big businesses do not, but small do just to insure there are small stores, even if you have to pay a little more, as long as they have good service. humanity deserves loyalty until the individual circumstances prove it wrong. helping out even if it is putting your live on the line is what makes america great, not drone bombing(guilty until proven innocent. what has our government become, i believe it is ugly. it does not have my loyalty.

  2. Fine post, wonderfully evocative anecdote–en route. Nice writing.

    although for me both the list of those I’m loyal to has shrunk and the ferocity of my loyalty has also dimmed. whereas once it was friends and family, now it’s pretty much just nuclear family, at least at the level of intensity you describe.

    i have a friend who is the proverbial grasshopper, although like most grasshoppers, a delightful and charming one. he’s been very ill and before too long he will either ask me for money or ask me to help him get money. not sure what i’ll do. it wont do any good of curse, he’ll just run right through it. i helped him get money a dozen years ago and after the accounts were settled, i suspcet for the most part it came out of my pocket, and i told him up front that i’d never do it again. will be an interesting test.

  3. Great post. I’m lucky enough to have a small group of friends that I’m sure I’d drop everything to help, and I’m sure they’d do the same. The group is smaller than it used to be, for various reasons, but I don’t think any of us would expect anything in return. Of course, if someone continuously took advantage our attitude toward that one may change.

  4. “Is it because I have come to except something in return?” Perhaps, but professing loyalty is opening yourself up to betrayal, just like loving puts one in danger of a broken heart. Either way takes courage.