Loyalty

cornMy father always extolled the virtues of loyalty.  Specifically, he extolled the virtue of him being loyal to his employer. He demonstrated this by buying its products when given the choice (for example).  He reasoned that his employer provided him with a living and for that reason he (and by extension his family) should be loyal to his employer.  The company he worked for was bought in the 80s by another larger company and my father lost his job as a result.  He remained unemployed for a couple of years before another company hired him.  During that period I remember him being very irritable and angry. I was young at the time and did not make the connection between the anger he vented on me and my siblings and the fact that he felt betrayed regarding his lack of employment. On one hand this was not an issue of loyalty per se. His employer paid him for the work he did and there was a reciprocal relationship there. Another company purchased his company and replaced the management team. There technically was no breach of loyalty in the scenario. However, there is no denying the fact that he felt betrayed. Perhaps it was the issue of loyalty on a higher level that seemed to be frustrated when he lost his job. Perhaps he felt that the universe was somehow being disloyal or had breached some sort of implied cosmic contract.

My father naturally passed this sense of loyalty on to me. Growing up, I always considered loyalty to be an admirable quality demonstrating one’s personal sense of responsibility and that being disloyal was a sin akin to  irresponsibility.  I connect this idea with the fact that I grew up in a family environment where the sense was constantly impressed upon me that World War II was a golden age for America. The war years were a time when everyone was loyal and patriotic (at least this was the way it had been described to me). This idea implied that the reason the United States of America of my youth seemed to be a declining power could be attributed to its citizens no longer being as loyal and patriotic as they were during the period of World War II.

I remember talking to my uncle (my father’s brother) at my wedding right before the ceremony was about to begin.  At the time I assumed my uncle had the same virtues as my father because they grew up in the same mid western family under the same parents. I remember telling my uncle that I learned the value of loyalty from his generation.  My uncle replied tersely, “loyalty is earned.”  This struck me as a different message than I was accustomed to hearing from my father but I put it aside for the time being.

I always felt a responsibility to be loyal to society at large and the organizations in which I was a member.  I felt that if I followed the rules I would naturally succeed and be rewarded in due time. My experience, however, did not prove this feeling to be true. It seems like every organization of which I was a member declined around me because other people were not as loyal to it as they should have been. That is, they did not take their membership seriously and they were not as loyal as I was. There were many situations where I remained loyal when other people bailed and I went down with the ship of more than a few organizations in my life.  At times I looked at these people who were not being loyal around me who in many cases went on to be more successful and less burdened by my concerns. This made me feel jealous, resentful and somehow guilty all at the same time.

I worked for a law firm for eight years and hated it because I never felt valued by the organization. I wanted to quit throughout these eight years but never did because I was afraid to loose the income I needed to pay for the obligations I had accumulated. And so I existed in a state of limbo where I forced myself to work for an organization that did not value me and that I intensely disliked. I wonder if this idea of loyalty somehow influenced me to stay with this law firm. If true, the fact that I was loyal to someone who did not seem loyal to me in return suggests to me that this strategy is flawed. It seems that loyalty in certain situations appears and feels on some level to be virtuous but is actually a self defeating manipulation. Similar to my father’s employer the law firm eventually laid me off in 2009 during the great recession.  At first I felt liberated but then felt like I had been screwed. All those years of loyalty were wasted years in many respects. I also question what exactly I was being loyal to. Again, there seems to be this larger, universal, contractual sense to loyalty at play here.

Is loyalty for suckers?  In many ways I think my uncle was right.  I suppose I am a sucker if I chose to be loyal to someone  who has not earned my loyalty. There certainly is a place for loyalty when it derives from a reciprocal relationship of mutual trust and respect. But I can see now that loyalty for the sake of loyalty itself (perhaps this in the universal loyalty I touched upon) is definitely for suckers. A person who adopts this philosophy is probably an easy target for any person, corporation or other organization that wants to take advantage of it.

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