I feel I must stipulate that loyalty is a virtue, because so many wise people think it so. But the truth is, I’m not sure whether loyalty is a good thing, or even what it is.
A friend wrote to me about her own loyal affections, by which I think she meant her tendency to persevere in loving what she first found lovable or delightful in others, despite the passage of time and the changes it brings.
Replying to my friend, I wondered in return if my own failure to grasp the concept–or at least to take hold of it as something to be desired–was the artifact of a peripatetic life, of my having lived in dozens of different places since I left my parents’ house. This is in contrast to so many people I work with, for whom a piece of land, a language or a history are reasons for living and dying. What is my place? To what am I loyal? I’m not sure, and what’s more, I distrust the whole concept.
The word “loyal” has the same root as law, and for me, the same flavor of compulsion. What is loyalty good for? The dictionary says, “firm and constant allegiance to a person or institution.”
It’s easy to see why the owners and operators of institutions prize loyalty: it allows them to misbehave without endangering their power. Indeed, I would venture this as a principle: as a whole, where institutional loyalty is most prized, it serves most as a distraction from misdeeds. Where blind loyalty is demanded as a matter of course, the misdeeds are the most striking: torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, etc.
The converse seems true as well. Where respect and connection are freely given, as in relation to an institution whose operators’ actions you support and join in, does loyalty even enter your mind? If the institution comes under attack and you stand to defend it, are you motivated by loyalty, by firmness of allegiance as a principle or cause of honor? Or simply by the real-time desire to support what you embrace?
There is a type of loyalty that springs from the wish to love unconditionally, as with the famous loyalty of sports fans to perennially losing teams. But here the idea of loyalty seems a smokescreen, in that the attachment is to passionate love and fellowship, to the pure pleasure of adoration, which is challenged neither by wins nor losses. One can as easily love his team for its members’ bravery in the face of defeat as for their mastery of success. But if the adoration ends, does the loyalty persist? I don’t think so.
Person-to-person, is it as simple as that? It seems so to me. Doesn’t loyalty come into the equation only when the river of freely given support runs dry? How often does loyalty come into your thoughts in relation to those you actively want in your life? If my friend falls ill or loses a job, faces the death of a loved one or another life crisis, I want to help. There is no question of loyalty involved in standing by someone under pressure, merely of caring. But if my friend harms another and refuses to take responsibility or act to set it right, if I no longer trust my friend to act with honesty, if my attempts to speak of these things are rebuffed, then I am not drawn to that person as once I was. The last thing I want to is stand loyally by declaring my allegiance, right or wrong.
Even when the situation doesn’t turn on moral or ethical differences, I question the value of loyalty. I know many people who feel trapped in outgrown relationships: “So-and-so was my best friend in school thirty years ago. We always get together on Thanksgiving, but I hate it. We have nothing in common anymore. When I talk about my life, I don’t feel she understands me–and I wonder if the opposite is true.” So why keep doing it? “I would feel so disloyal if I were the one to break it off.” I imagine both would instead feel relieved to take it down a notch to the annual exchange of holiday cards instead of visits.
Just so, I know people who are trapped in fealty to an idea, defending egregious excesses out of loyalty to a beautiful concept in the name of which they are committed: the gulags were a temporary aberration, the debacle in Iraq a slight excess of zeal in defense of democracy, and so on. Or they loyally go through the motions, pretending to beliefs they no longer hold or automatically defending beliefs they haven’t bothered to reconsider in decades. When I hear words coming out of my that mouth snag and catch as they enter my brain, I try to ask myself this question: how would I feel if I no longer had to seem loyal to that belief? If the answer is relief, then no matter how much of my life I may have dedicated to upholding an idea, I know the better course is to give it a proper burial and move on.
As I write this, I have the nagging feeling I may be missing something others clearly see as crucial: perhaps my operating system lacks a loyalty chip. But I feel fine without it. I am content to notice the ebb and flow of my interest and engagement; to always seek something in an institution or in a person that draws me near, here and now; to move through the lifelong dance of attachment, now holding on and now letting go. If that makes me disloyal, so be it. What is loyalty good for, anyway?