Is loyalty a virtue?

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We think of loyalty and fidelity as virtues and they can be.

But like most qualities they can turn on you if you don’t use them with awareness. They are also are frequently misapplied.

We need to ask ourselves:

  • Is this the right word for what I am dealing with?
  • To whom or what am I loyal?  

Relationships in any arena bring the complexity of these questions into sharp relief.

Many bullies at work are not exposed because victims do not come forward, often fearing retribution. This is not a phantasmagorical fear but one anchored in real life concerns for job security and even personal safety.

But it is not loyalty.

Those in abusive relationships can experience a bizarre loyalty to their persecutors. Although these dynamics are highly complex traumatic bonding is a well-documented survival technique.

But is this loyalty?

No, it’s denial. Or fear (understandable) of tackling the behavior. Because as Leslie Morgan Steiner says in her compelling talk on why people put up with abuse, those consequences can be dire.

Either way, we need to call it what it is before we can start dealing with it. And naming is just a start. We don’t know something because we name it, though it provides a launch point.

Fidelity is no different and I am not just talking about the sexual variety, although that gets attention. That is because an affair requires both intention and secrecy, which heightens the duplicity.

But the insidious infidelity we go along with in daily life can also be damaging.

Do you accept someone’s beliefs at the cost of your own? Study a profession you hate because of pressure? Stay in an unhealthy situation because you’re invested in what things look like to the outside world?

Do you go along, tag along, or just keep quiet when others ask you to buy into something with which you are uncomfortable because you want to be liked, accepted, included? Nasty gossip? A prejudiced view?

What is the cost of fidelity to another if it is rooted in self-betrayal?

To whom or what do I owe my fidelity?

You have to put yourself in the frame.

People may not like it if you disagree with them or choose to walk away. But if you put their wellbeing wholly above yours then you are buying into a lie (caveat: this is not the same as recognizing the need for compromise). You have to make fidelity to yourself a higher calling than pleasing other people.

Now I am not in the least suggesting that you should be selfish.Selfish people centralize themselves, take energy and give little back.  By putting your wellbeing first I do not mean you should be self-centered or manipulative.  I am saying that you need to put yourself in the frame in a considered way that incorporates respect for (but not deference to) others’ needs.

But we need to go even further if we are to live with awareness.

We need to accept that at times even being faithful to ourselves can be problematic.

We can confuse conviction and character with doggedness. Hang onto our ideas for dear life, failing to recognize that they were never ours to begin with, that we inherited or acquiesced to them or just didn’t question if who we were at 16 is still who we are at 60.

As Julian Baggini says, the self is not fixed; but endlessly created. Being who we really are allows for new information to come in, it allows for flux. But being true to yourself also means knowing (at least partially) who that is. This is where awareness comes in.

Ever heard a cheat shrug off accountability for their behavior by saying ‘It’s just the way I am’, followed by a litany of excuses (s/he made me, tempted me, we weren’t getting along so well at the time, it was your fault, it didn’t mean anything.) That’s not true. They made a decision. Better to rephrase it as such. ‘I made a decision.’ Then the talking can begin.

Having faith in an idea can be as good as it can be bad.

Look at the sort of hatred people inherit, hurting those they’ve never met because of events they’ve never experienced that have nothing to do with people alive today.

Are you faithful only to only your idea of what the right structures are? Of what a perfect job/relationship/family should look like?

Is it more important to you that a ‘happy family’ fits your blueprint of 1 married woman + 1 married man with x many kids? Or is your real interest the wellbeing of humans, that people are nurtured and cared for, that you truly support the people in your care? What’s your intention, the deeper drive? No one can answer this by you.

To whom or what are you loyal?

This does not mean we should run for cover at the first sign trouble and claim that we are betraying ourselves by being in jobs or relationships when we are simply bored or trying to avoid dealing with difficulty. That’s an excuse. Disagreements are not just a natural part of life but vital to growth.

Good relationships are not about agreement, but alignment, in particular of values. But we need to hold those values up to the light and examine them. You can share the same values as someone else and both use them to look down on others who are not living a replica of your life? What sort of a sharing is that? Values can be used for ill as much as good. Reflect. Refine. Apply critical thinking.

I believe it is important to have an underlying philosophy that guides your life. For example, being kind is a wonderful focusing principle. In applying it we recognize that being kind is not a synonym for saying ‘yes’ or being nice.

Remember that:

  • Loyalty can be misguided.
  • Fidelity can come at the cost of self-betrayal.
  • Being faithful can mask self-righteousness.

Any virtue can be a vice. As ever, reflecting on who we are and what we believe (which will change through time) allows us to live with consciousness.

Dionne Lew
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