When people speak of character flaws, it’s common to hear about things like gluttony, compulsive spending, or lust. Loyalty isn’t usually among them. But for me, loyalty – or rather, excessive loyalty – has proven to be one of my greatest flaws. You may ask, ‘How can loyalty be a flaw?’ Let’s look at it closer.
As a virtue ethicist, I’ve always tended to agree with Aristotle’s principle of the golden mean. For those not familiar with it, this principle simply states that the optimal point of a moral value, or virtue, is not the opposite of a vice, but rather the midpoint between two extremes of opposite vices. For example, the vices of recklessness and cowardice have at their midpoint the virtue of courage, while courage is not the true opposite of either extreme. In such a way, the place of virtue in loyalty would be the midpoint between complete treachery and absolute commitment.
To some, it might seem difficult to see how absolute commitment can be considered a vice. I am one of them. I have always felt that if I was going to do something or be involved with someone, it needed to be 100% or nothing. Age has taught me that, while this sounds great in theory, it’s difficult to apply in reality. It’s sort of like living in a fantasy, when in reality there are few things that deserve that kind of devotion.
As I’ve matured in my sense of loyalty, I’ve come to realize that recognizing the deserts of others is critical in avoiding the vice of absolute commitment. In many ways, absolute commitment requires a certain denial of self awareness and reasoning. In order to be absolutely committed to something or someone, I must remain loyal even when it seems irrational to do so. That’s a very dangerous place to be. It’s a place where even my sense of self preservation and survival is compromised out of trust in the object of my loyalty. There are only a very few things that deserve absolute commitment, namely God, wife/husband, and dependent children.
What it’s like living in the dark side of loyalty
Learning to discern what things and people deserve such a commitment from me has been very difficult. Perhaps it’s my Gothic tendency toward the extreme, but by nature, I give my absolute loyalty far too easily.
Girls/Dating – Since I was a youth, I’ve fantasized about finding the girl in whom I could pour my absolute loyalty, the girl who could also do the same with me. Many have told me that’s an unrealistic expectation for a relationship. It may be, but I don’t know if I truly want anything less. If I marry, that’s the way it will be. The problem is that I tend to give too much loyalty to girls before any commitments are made. I’m a very one-girl guy. Other guys have told me that I need to work several girls at a time until I find one that I can get serious with. I’ve tried, but I just cannot get interested in more than one girl at a time. Furthermore, I tend to remain loyal to a girl even if things don’t work out, and I often wait a long time – several years in a couple of instances – before I move on. I do this because I don’t want to hurt the girl, and I usually wait until time and distance cushions her or until another guy comes into her life before I move on. With a couple of girls, I’ve tried to just forget them and move on promptly, but the pain it caused them was too much. Even though these girls may have broken my heart, loyalty kept me from living my own life. Looking back over my dating years, my dark sense of loyalty has caused me to spend much more time in stasis waiting for girls to move on than I’ve spent in relationships with them.
Career – My current job pays about half what my degree qualifies me to make. I’ve started to move on from the position several times, but I’m still here. My reasons are complex, but a large part is my sense of loyalty to my colleagues. I’m very good at what I do, and they’ve not held back on communicating to me my value here. We’re all aware that if I leave my position, the position will most likely be filled with someone who is not competent to do all the things I do, which will cause a great deal of stress and disorder in the way things work here. I know I’m not beholden to the people here in any way. But now that I’m making plans for the next step in my life, I find myself battling guilt from feelings of disloyalty to them. That’s a struggle I should not have to fight, but my dark sense of loyalty demands it.
Friends – I haven’t made very many good friends in my life, largely because I’m fiercely independent and don’t need them. But there have been a few people over the years who have come into my life for various reasons, and I’ve become close to them. Most of my friends move on. They’ve moved away or gotten married and entered a different social circle. For me, I can go for months, even years, without talking to a friend, and then one day strike up a conversation with him/her as if time hadn’t passed. I often prefer my friendships to be that way because it’s interesting to hear the tales of what we’ve learned since we last talked. But I’ve found that most often, my friends forget about me. My loyalty to them remains true, but I often find myself wondering whether or not they remember me or would even care to converse with me. Sometimes, they don’t. That’s when I feel betrayed, a feeling that I really don’t have the right to feel. But my dark sense of loyalty demands it.
Loyalty can be a great thing when two individuals are equally devoted to each other. But loyalty can be a horrible, torturous prison when they aren’t. I’m still learning how and when to give my loyalty, and I’m still learning how to sever it when I need to. It’s a double-edged sword that can both provide for me the things I need from life as well as put me through a living hell in the process.