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Who Deserves Your Loyalty?

What is the motivation behind loyalty?

I think a good friend, to me, is all about trust and loyalty. You don't ever want to second-guess whether you can tell your friend something.” — Lauren Conrad, reality television star

I lost one of my best friends to cancer a few weeks ago. Ken and I had been friends for 45 years. We attended high school and college together. As we got older, work and family kept us from spending time together more than two or three times a year, however, we spoke on the phone every week. I’ve been thinking about what made him a “best friend,” and the word that keeps coming to mind is loyalty.

copyright Robert Evans Wilson, Jr.
There is nothing more valuable than a loyal friend.
Source: copyright Robert Evans Wilson, Jr.

Ken and I differed in our politics and our religion, yet that never had an impact on our friendship. Ken had my back, as the saying goes, and I always knew that if I needed help in a pinch, he was the one I could count on showing up. After my divorce, he checked in frequently to see how I was feeling. He was supportive of my challenging career choices and regularly sent me business leads.

I looked online for a definition of the word loyal, and while most of them suggest that it is an allegiance to a government, institution, religion, cause, product, or a person, it is my humble opinion that loyalty or being loyal can only be to people. To me loyalty is being faithful and devoted to someone; it is giving or showing firm and constant support or allegiance to a person.

You cannot buy loyalty; you cannot buy the devotion of hearts, minds, and souls. You have to earn these things.” — Clarence Francis, former Chairman of the Board for General Foods

I’ve wondered what motivation lies behind loyalty, and I realize that it isn’t a one-way street. It must be given if one expects to receive it. Loyalty is a survival mechanism that dates back to our caveman days. In the harsh environment of early man, giving and receiving support from the members of your family, tribe, or clan meant the difference between life and death.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Arguably, the test of loyalty is conduct rather than the intensity of feeling, primarily a certain "stickingness" or perseverance—the loyal person acts for or stays with or remains committed to the object of loyalty even when it is likely to be disadvantageous or costly to the loyal person to do so.”

I believe that loyalty depends on honesty. If you can’t trust me, then you cannot be loyal to me. Loyalty means I keep my word and follow through on my commitments. It means I support you in your interests and endeavors, even if I don’t share them. If you are passionate about something, I want to be your cheerleader.

As a loyal friend, I offer you empathy instead of judgment. There is, however, a limit to this. If you expect me to suspend my judgment and support you in something I think is wrong or dangerous, then it is within my right to refuse.

I place an enormous premium on loyalty. If someone betrays me, I can forgive them rationally, but emotionally I have found it impossible to do so.” — Richard E. Grant, actor

There is perhaps nothing more hurtful than to find that you’ve been betrayed by someone to whom you have been loyal. When I was in elementary school, I shared a secret with a friend I thought could be trusted. The secret was a nickname my mother was called as a child that she hated. Before sharing it with him, I asked him to promise that he would never tell another person. He agreed. Then a few months later, a friend of his came up to me and started calling me the name my mother hated. It was the first time I felt the devastating emotion of betrayal. I was never friends with him after that.

As an adult, I felt betrayed by another friend, but later on, I realized that it was not betrayal as he had a higher loyalty to another person that superseded his loyalty to me. Unfortunately, one loyalty can trump another. To avoid such a situation, one must explore deeper and learn if higher loyalties exist before committing assets that could be lost.

I recall listening to a woman I dated trash talk three of her best friends when they were not around. The things she said about them were shockingly insulting, and not something a loyal friend would ever say. If they knew what she was saying, they could hardly continue to be her devoted friend. I asked her, “And, what do you say about me when I’m not around?” She denied ever saying anything bad about me. Nevertheless, I did not continue dating her much after that.

And, then there is Stupid Loyalty which is staying in a relationship with someone who doesn’t respect you, care for you, or make you feel safe. I stayed in a loveless marriage for years longer than I should have because of the commitment I made on my wedding day: “to love, honor, and cherish until death do us part.” I foolishly felt I had to honor that commitment even though, my wife had long quit returning it. Fortunately, she divorced me, because at the time I still couldn’t violate my commitment and initiate divorce proceedings against her.

The only people I owe my loyalty to are those who never made me question theirs.” — Anonymous

Loyalty still exists today even though it is not as necessary to survival as it once was. Knowing how and why loyalty work will help us decide rationally who deserves our devotion. There is nothing better than having a friend on whom you can always depend. I lost one of my best, and I’m poorer for it.

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