I’ve been thinking about loyalty recently. Loyalty is one of my bigger rabbit holes. I most often use the term when I’m beating myself up. A nasty little internal voice frequently hisses “Disloyal!” in my ear. This happens so constantly, in fact, that I’m bored. I’ve decided to unpack the concept of loyalty, spread it out, let the cat sniff at it, and either own my own disloyalty without shame or permanently silence that particular internal accusation.
The first thing I notice is I want to be loyal. Loyalty is a virtue. Good, loving people are loyal. I certainly want to be a loyal family member, friend and partner. Loyalty has always been an important part of my identity, which is why it’s such an effective lash for me. What’s more shameful and ugly than disloyalty?
I don’t want to be shameful and ugly. If I am shameful and ugly, I certainly don’t want anyone to find out.
Loyalty, then, is something that depends on what onlookers think about my behavior and choices.
Before I’ve even crawled into the mouth of the rabbit hole I’ve moved out of my power. Interesting.
Recently, I took my morning cup of tea and spent two hours with dictionary, thesaurus and my laptop looking at poetry, quotes, memes, definitions and articles. I read about families, patriotism and dogs. I discovered 80% of results returned for a search on loyalty have to do with manipulating customer and product loyalty. Of course. What a world.
At the end of that two hours, I felt no wiser. I had some notes, but I still didn’t have a clear idea of what loyalty really is, what it looks like, what it feels like to give or receive it, and how it overlaps with trust, authenticity, truth, enabling, coercion and control. I can point to people in my life I feel loyalty for, and I can point to people who I feel are loyal to me, but the truth is I don’t trust myself on this issue. Maybe my confusion means I am, in fact, shamefully disloyal. A humbling and humiliating thought.
At the same time, would I feel so torn apart by family and personal social dynamics if I was thoroughly disloyal? My sense of loyalty to others has given me much anguish over the years. Surely if it was absent in me I wouldn’t struggle so hard with it.
Simply defined, loyalty is a strong feeling of support or allegiance. That definition leaves me even more clueless than I was before. It has to be more complicated than that, doesn’t it?
Well, doesn’t it?
Is it just me, or does the cultural definition of loyalty consist of a much more convoluted hairball of expectations, assumptions and false equivalencies?
I often use back doors when I feel stuck. My two hours of research did give me some ideas about what loyalty is not, at least in my mind. But already I can see others might disagree. Still, that’s why we have dictionaries and definitions.
Loyalty cannot be slavery or prostitution. If I have to compromise my integrity in order to fulfill someone else’s expectation of loyalty, it’s no longer a virtue, but an abuse and manipulation. True loyalty must be freely and heartfully given. Authentic loyalty can’t be bought, sold, stolen or owed. It’s not demonstrated by obedience or compliance. If it’s not free and spontaneous, it’s only a sham, an empty word that sounds great but has no substance. Loyalty is not a weapon. It’s a gift.
Said another way, from a perspective of power (and you know how much I think about power!), loyalty is a tool of power-with, not a weapon of power-over.
Loyalty is not blind. Part of its value is its clarity. We prize it so highly because seeing and being seen clearly, warts and all, and demonstrating or receiving loyalty in spite of it is an act of strength and love. In that case, compassion, tolerance and respect are all involved in loyalty. It follows, then, that loyalty does not require agreement. I can feel entirely loyal to a loved one while disagreeing with some of their choices and beliefs.
Loyalty does not imply denial, arguing with what is or colluding in rewriting history in order to sanitize it. Loyalty is not a right or an obligation.
In fact, the thesaurus suggests the word “trueness” as a synonym for loyalty. Interesting. Isn’t trueness the same as authenticity? I count on those who are loyal to me to tell me the truth of their experience with me and of me. I count on them to trust me with their thoughts, feelings, concerns and observations. I count on them to ask me questions about my choices, and to forgive me when I’m less than perfect. I hold myself to the same standards. This can mean a hard conversation now and then, and uncomfortable vulnerability and risk, but real loyalty is not cheap.
The thesaurus also supplies the word “constancy” as a synonym for loyalty. Constancy is an old-fashioned word these days, but it leapt out at me because consistency is very important to me. I’ve had some experience with Jekyll-and-Hyde abuse patterns in which the goalposts and rules constantly change without notice, keeping me nicely trapped in trying to please people who have no intention of ever being pleased no matter what I do. Loyalty is present one day and absent the next, then present again, then unavailable. That kind of “loyalty” is an abuse tactic.
As always, the construct of loyalty is two-sided. There’s the loyalty that extends between me and another, and then there’s the loyalty I extend to myself. This circles back around to slavery, prostitution and silence. If I have to betray my own needs or make myself small in order to earn or retain someone’s loyalty, something’s very wrong. If I’m called disloyal for saying no, having appropriate boundaries or telling the truth of my experience, then we are not in agreement about the definition of loyalty or I’m being manipulated (again). How loyal can I be to others if I fail to be faithful to myself?
True loyalty will never require me to make a choice between myself and another. Loyalty is strong enough to compromise and collaborate.
Loyalty becomes weaponized when we demand or command absolute agreement, devotion and unquestioning support. Then the concept becomes very black and white. This is demonstrated all over social media and media in general. One unwanted question or view leads to unmerciful deplatforming, silencing and a torrent of threats and abuse. Our loyalty is questioned and tested at every turn. We allow bullies, tyrants and personality-disordered people to achieve and maintain control, terrified of tribal shaming, being unpatriotic or being cast out of our social groups and communities.
The label of disloyalty is extremely powerful, but when I strip away all my confusions and distortions around loyalty and return to the simple definition, it’s not complicated at all. I certainly feel a strong allegiance and support for many individual people, for my community, for my country, for women, for writers, for this piece of land I live on, and for myself.
I suspect many others would like me to wear the label of disloyalty, but I can’t do a thing about their distortions except hand them a dictionary. Very elitist behavior, I’m sure you will agree. Not to mention the disloyalty of refusing to collude in my own shaming.
Being called disloyal doesn’t make it so.
That voice in my head has to do better, find a new slur. I’m willing to own being disloyal if I am, but my conclusion after this investigation is mostly I’m not, and when I am, my greatest trespass is against myself. That I can do something about.
Loyalty. Setting down the weapon. Picking up the tool.
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