Survival of loyalty in a throw-away society

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, October 23, 2002

So, coffee companion Carrie Monk comes up to me and asks, "Do you know which knight it was that designed the round table?"

She caught me totally off guard. I mean, Carrie's the music director at our church, the service was just about to start, and when I saw her coming up the aisle right toward me, I figured she was about to suggest I not sing too loudly lest I throw everyone else off key.

But n-o-o-o. She just had to give me her response to last week's column on humor. And the answer to her question? "Sir Cumference," of course.

Which, in spite of the groans out there in readership land, actually does have something to do with this week's topic: loyalty.

Loyalty, as we all know, was a defining value shared by the knights of King Arthur's Round Table. It was loyalty that bound them to their king and to each other. It was loyalty, together with honor and courage, that emboldened them to "hang in there" when the going got tough.

I was still chuckling over Carrie's joke as I sat down at a round table in one of my favorite Cochrane coffee houses and told it to lawyer Greg Axelson, along with a word of praise for loyalty.

"Loyalty?" Greg asked. "Loyalty, in a throw-away society?"

Then he retrieved from his wallet a much-handled scrap of paper. It was a quote from author Margaret Atwood:

"There are no longer any ties that bind, not securely, not definitely: jobs, marriages, the commitments of love, even the status of parent or child -- all are in a state of flux. Thus everything is provisional, to be reinvented tomorrow, and no one can depend on anyone else."

The word, "loyalty," is almost never heard in conversation any more, Greg lamented. The very mention of loyalty in a discussion of business or marriage too often seems irrelevant or inappropriate, or at best, quaint.

"The single greatest moral loss that's taking its toll on community, families and interpersonal relationships is the genuine loss of the concept of loyalty," Greg said.

"The throw-away society has now extended to relationships."

We treat relationships like an old wristwatch or television set. It's not working as perfectly as we think it should? Rather than putting the time and effort into repairing it, throw it out and get another.

Having problems with your spouse or children? Walk away from the marriage. Work's getting in the way of having fun? Walk away from the job. Can't get along with your neighbors or community? Move somewhere else.

Yet, we pondered, how can society carry on without loyalty? It is one of the legs of a tripod; without loyalty there is no stability. It is one of the members in a three-strand rope; without loyalty there is no strength.

"Loyalty, compassion and forgiveness are the ties that bind people together," Greg said.

Whether all of us at our coffee table this week fully agree with Greg's view that loyalty is an endangered species, we must acknowledge that his concern gives pause for reflection.

For me, his high regard for loyalty brings to mind an ancient Hebrew proverb:

"Let not loyalty and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart."

Clearly, however, these words do not refer to a self-serving loyalty. The Hebrew word chesed, translated here as "loyalty," can also be translated as "mercy." A covenant is implied, in which each of two parties in a relationship honors a loyalty to the other, shows regard for the well-being of the other.

Military buddies in battle are prepared to lay down their lives for each other.

Employees and stockholders of Bre-X, Enron and WorldCom had every right to expect a similar reciprocal loyalty from company executives. They were sadly disillusioned.

Returning to the example of loyalty among King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table, there is something U. S. President Woodrow Wilson once said that gets to the core of the issue, whether in marriage, business or any other relationship:

"Loyalty means nothing unless it has at its heart the absolute principle of self-sacrifice."

© 2002 Warren Harbeck

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