Rodin's "Cathedral"
Image courtesy Wikipedia.org

Years ago, I had a couple of friends, let's call them Ken and Kyle*.

Of the two, I was much closer to Ken. I knew him for longer, had more in common with him, shared a lot of fun times with him, even shared a living space with him for a brief time. We met Kyle through a mutual interest of ours, and the three of us hit it off. We spent many long afternoons pursuing our mutual interest, and also talking about life, as friends often do.

Early on, though, Kyle and I clashed on our taste in music. Kyle liked X, while I preferred Y. For a long time, I thought this was actually a good thing, since it allowed us to swap CDs, show each other new music, explore our differences, have spirited debate. It was fun for me, because I like talking about music, and by all appearances, so did Kyle. We didn't have to agree, as far as I was concerned, because the conversation itself was fun.

What I failed to notice was that Kyle only enjoyed talking about music when we agreed with each other. If the topic were King's X, for example, we could go for days! We loved those guys. Change the topic to Primus and it was a whole other ballgame. Because I thought we were enjoying ourselves, I'd keep the conversations going. It turned out that all I was doing was bothering Kyle.

As time went on, Ken grew closer to Kyle than I did. Still, I considered them both to be good friends.

Then one day Kyle invited Ken and I, along with another mutual friend of ours, Tim*, over to his house to hang out. There, he sat us all down in a circle and proceeded to air all of his grievances with me. He didn't like the way I looked, he didn't like my attitude, he was upset by a few of things I had done, and a couple of things I hadn't but should have. Tim echoed Kyle's grievances. Ken said nothing at all. This went on for a long time.

Most of Kyle's complaints were unreasonable, and the few that were reasonable were misunderstandings. I tried to defend myself, but the process itself was designed to be an onslaught, I was intended to be out-numbered, and this was clearly a severance, not an intervention. This was good-bye, and good riddance, to Ryan.

After some time, Ken finally chimed in. He vouched for my personality by recounting the story of a time when I had offered Ken some friendly emotional support when he needed it, when no one else was around to give it to him. Kyle and Tim didn't respond to that much, they simply doubled-down on Kyle's list of grievances. Ken fell silent again.

That was the last time I ever laid eyes on Kyle, although Tim, to his credit, apologized to me years later - an apology I gladly accepted, and today I count him among my friends. For a long time, however Ken remained close friends with Kyle and Tim, and continued to hang out with them - without me - for years after this occurred.

In my vanity, I expected that my old friend would stand by me, would walk out of Kyle's house by my side, loyal to the friendship that we had had for years prior to meeting Kyle or Tim. But that just didn't happen. Some time later, I asked Ken who he thought was in the right. He said he thought they had done me wrong, but that he just wished we could all be friends. Of course, he was spending a lot more time with the other two at this point, several nights a week, while I hardly saw him at all anymore and had to move on to a different friends group, forging some new strong relationships entirely.

In essence, I'd lost my good friend Ken to a couple of guys who had treated me unfairly. Ken knew I'd been done wrong but it wasn't enough to convince him that I was a better friend than they were. He preferred them.

That stung, and my relationship to Ken never recovered.

Since then, I've been particularly sensitive to loyalty in friendship. "People-pleasers" often try to patch things over with everyone involved - and for the record, Ken is no people-pleaser - but what they lack is a sense of justice, a clear set of beliefs about what kind of people they are willing to keep as friends. Impressionable people will go along with whatever the majority decides, and if they lose a friend or two along the way, they make it up in numbers. Ken wasn't an impressionable person like that, either, though.

Ken's problem, I now believe, is that he could only recognize loyalty as a good thing when it went his way. When it cost him something, it was too much. So my early showing of loyalty to him - being there for him when no one else would - carried emotional significance for him, but not enough for him to reciprocate. When he actually observed people abandoning me unfairly, and insulting me as they did it, it wasn't enough to trigger his sense of loyalty.

Over the years, I have been through several other instances of seeing some of my friends stand idly by while lesser, peripheral friends and acquaintances  insulted me. When I notice that one of my chosen friends has no loyalty to express toward me, that friendship withers instantly on my end. I'll likely continue to be friendly with the person, but I will never again consider them close, nor will I put forth effort to bring them closer.

The importance of loyalty isn't abstract. In life, we often face harsh treatment from people. We require loyalty in our close relationships because we must trust our friends to support and protect us when we need it. Otherwise, what is friendship beyond being in the same place at the same time, and having occasional conversations? Loyalty reflects a shared sense of ethics and a mutual esteem. Like anything else, it can be taken too far, but without it the mutual respect between friends disappears. There's only so much a shared interest in cars, for example, can get you with another person. It has to be a shared interest in cars, plus the belief that the other person is someone worth vouching for.

So, it hurts when you're not vouched for when you need to be. If you don't have any friends around, then you can always find solace in your support group when you're near them again. But if you're already near your support group and it doesn't offer you support, then it's double the damage; first, you've been wronged, and second you've been denied the support to which you feel entitled. It's worse than never having that support in the first place.

Disloyal people, however, soon reap what they sow. Loyalty can only ever be reciprocal. A relationship in which A is loyal to B, but B is disloyal to A will collapse under the imbalance. Part of being deserving of loyalty is demonstrating loyalty oneself. So those who fail to show loyalty will, over time, loose access to the friendship of all those for whom loyalty is genuinely important - i.e. the very people from whom they most likely would have received loyalty.

*Obviously I've changed their names - I have never been friends with anyone named Ken or Kyle.