Loyalty should be simple, and that’s exactly why it isn’t. To me, loyalty means standing by someone to the end. There’s three pieces of that statement which have to be dissected.
Let’s go out of order.
“To the end” can mean a lot of things. In movies or stories, it means to the death, or beyond. It means “I, the hero of heroism and good battle hair, will follow you into the jaws of unspeakable torment and maybe bad breath until the sun explodes and the whole thing becomes moot.” Not exactly a common occurrence in my life; if it is in yours, I want to hear about it.
For me, standing by someone “to the end” is a little bit based on context. I will stand by my CONvergence team to the end, which means they can call me at 4am needing me to back them up and I will come. It also means they can call me for help in the off season, and, by dint of being my team, I will still come. But when people leave that team, if we aren’t friends independent of that, I might not be as willing to jump up at 4am to help someone’s wayward cat or to haul a broken stove (though, if they were desperate, I’d probably go anyway).
On the other hand, “to the end” with those who are my family, not of blood, but forged in bonds of friendship and shared experience and trust — them, I would happily follow into hell armed only with a lopsided snowball. And for those who are so close to my heart, to the end really means to the end. To my dying breath, I will be on their side. I will be their family, their backup, their support. Those who call me family will have a place in my house even if my house is a one room apartment with no heat. “To the end” is a vow I give not necessarily out loud or to someone’s face, but once my heart is entangled with theirs? Yeah, “to the end” is until the end of measurable time and whatever comes after if anything does.
But that “to the end” has a lot to do with the “who” of the loyalty. And that “who,” the “someone” who I am standing by, is the most important piece of loyalty.
Am I loyal to my alma mater, or my hometown? Uh…eh? I mean, kinda. More the former than the latter. I take pride in my WNY heritage, but I’m loyal to the Buffalo Sabres. I love Carleton College, but I’m not going to get in a pissing match with somebody from St Olaf just because of reasons (some of my favorite people in the world went to Olaf). Am I loyal to the country of my birth? Yeah…but that doesn’t mean I wear flags on my shirt every day and sing “America the Beautiful” as a lullaby. Because it’s less that I’m loyal to the institutions and more that I’m loyal to what they represent.
(Except the Sabres. That surpasses all things rational and goes to the blood. Can’t help it.)
I am NOT loyal to a president who attacks his own people, no matter what color their skin or their religion or where they came from to get here. I am NOT loyal to a government predicated on removing the voice and votes of some people to artificially raise up their own demographic. I am NOT loyal to a concept of freedom which only applies to some people, some of the time. I AM, however, loyal to the idea of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” I AM, however, loyal to the Bill of Rights. I AM, however, loyal to the people who sacrifice so much to serve the rest of us.
Really, whether you’re talking people or abstract concepts, my sense of loyalty is directly related to my feelings of respect. Loyalty can also be bred in affection and closeness and love, but it cannot exist without respect.
So I am loyal to my friends and my family, to the members of my CONvergence team and the Twin Cities Women’s Choir. I am loyal to people who make choices to advocate for, or care for, or support, or show kindness to those I love. I am loyal to those who are loyal to me.
But loyalty doesn’t mean I won’t challenge.
Because “standing by” someone doesn’t mean silently approving bad or cruel decisions. It doesn’t mean lending my support to a wrong thing just because a person to whom I am loyal says so.
“Standing by” means I’m going to publically back you for as long as my loyalty doesn’t infringe upon my honor or my other values. It means taking your side in a struggle, and having your back in a tough place. But it also means that, if your decision is a poor one, I’m going to tell you about it. It means supporting you against others, but challenging you in private to be certain you are making the best choices.
Loyalty cannot be blind or unquestioning — that makes it obedience.
I am obedient to no one.
But if I respect you and you make a request of me (or are of a position in which you can give me an order and reasonably expect me to follow it), then I will do ask asked. Loyalty means slotting myself in beside you where I belong and putting my efforts to your side — but it means making sure that I voice any doubts I may have. Loyalty means I’ll help you out of a jam, but if that jam is a problem of your own making, I’m going to make sure you know that. I will stand up with you against any crowd, but when we are alone I will tell you if I think you’re being a doofus.
Loyalty means I will come when you need me, but I won’t hide bodies for you. It means I’ll tell you why you need to turn yourself in — at length — even as I promise to go with you and keep you company for as long as I can.
Because those people or ideals to which I have loyalty also have my respect — and I cannot respect anyone with whom I cannot be honest. Not cruelly, not without purpose. But if I am loyal to you, then I respect you enough to hear me when I tell you that you are in the wrong, and I will be at your side to help you make it right.
Where Honor demands the best of me, all that I can safely give, Loyalty demands that I seek the best in others, and I do whatever I can and whatever is necessary to support and encourage and defend them while they do so. I may make a promise on my Honor and keep it always, but Loyalty means I don’t need a promise — one is implicit in the exchange of respect.
Because once my Loyalty is given, I rarely take it back.
There are those I have not seen in years, a few kind souls from the years before I found my way, before I found my people and my family and my community. They don’t even know this blog exists. They may barely remember that I do. But they did me a kind turn when I was in need, and they remained with me when all others did not. They were not as instrumental in guiding the course of my life as those who left scars, but they were always honest with me. They gave me space to be myself and support when I asked for it. They were my friends, and they made a difference. And if one of them were to call me tomorrow and beg for my help, I would give it. Not just because I owe them a debt of honor, but because I still hold loyalty to them. Because they are still deserving of loyalty, even with years between us.
There’s a poem I think about often when I think about the amazing people in my life, the people for whom I would do anything. It’s unfortunately gendered, but applies nonetheless: Rudyard Kipling’s “The Thousandth Man:”
One man in a thousand, Solomon says.
Will stick more close than a brother.
And it’s worth while seeking him half your days
If you find him before the other.
Nine hundred and ninety-nine depend
On what the world sees in you,
But the Thousandth Man will stand your friend
With the whole round world agin you.
‘Tis neither promise nor prayer nor show
Will settle the finding for ‘ee.
Nine hundred and ninety-nine of ’em go
By your looks, or your acts, or your glory.
But if he finds you and you find him,
The rest of the world don’t matter;
For the Thousandth Man will sink or swim
With you in any water.
You can use his purse with no more talk
Than he uses yours for his spendings,
And laugh and meet in your daily walk
As though there had been no lendings.
Nine hundred and ninety-nine of ’em call
For silver and gold in their dealings;
But the Thousandth Man he’s worth ’em all
Because you can show him your feelings.
His wrong’s your wrong, and his right’s your right,
In season or out of season.
Stand up and back it in all men’s sight
With that for your only reason!
Nine hundred and ninety-nine can’t bide
The shame or mocking or laughter,
But the Thousandth Man will stand by your side
To the gallows-foot – and after!
That’s Loyalty. And it is my great honor and privilege to be that Thousandth person to those who are the same to me.
Next week — Courage.