So I’ve been doing alot of musing these days about loyalty, struggling with it, really. The loyalty stuff on my mind isn’t at all equivalent to the drama of trueheart Sam’s famous loyalty to Frodo & the Quest-To-Deliver-Middle-Earth-From-Evil…no, nothing like that. Just your everyday loyalty (& sometimes conflicting loyalties) to family members, worthy causes, old friends, new friends, women friends, breakfast buddies, grocery stores, President Obama, random groups that I’ve participated in or contributed to forever, my hens, Friends of the Rail & Trail…you know, that sort of loyalty.
…not to mention dog loyalty, cat loyalty, basketball, red & blue states, NIMBYism, patriotism, religion, Burning Man, Big Macs, Braveheart, the Crusades, the Cubs, the Euro, Tibet, Israel, iAnything, GPS – all big players in the loyalty arena.
I’ve been particularly loyal to several groups of women over the years. Some of these include women I’ve known for decades – close friends from those early, heady Women’s Health Collective days in the 1970’s, to my down-home, tapioca-loving, card-playing quartet. But others are mostly made up of women I barely know – for example, the ever-morphing Ten Sharps, women who gather once/year to support a Kuumbwa jazz show by a young(er than us) female artist.
So what drives me to hang in there with these gals, these groups, year after year? & (more importantly for yours truly), for them to hang in there with me? Why do I feel particularly uneasy when there is dissension in the ranks? or when I perceive that my community is threatened by the evil other?
A summary of current research about human ‘in-group’ loyalty notes that “much of the early work in this area observed that humans are naturally predisposed to see the world in terms of social groups, spontaneously segregating themselves into groups based on the most minimal of grouping dimensions.” Many primates share this preference for their in-group, although research in this area is not as robust as one would think, given how key this is to primate life. It’s a hot topic among evolutionary biologists these days, however, with the latest offering of The Social Conquest of Earth, by Pulitzer-Prize author and naturalist E.O. Wilson, generating numerous critiques and counter-critiques among his own scientific in-group. Clearly we’re not all yet agreed on how or when this aspect of human nature came about.
Generally speaking, our sense of well-being is enhanced by feeling that we’re part of a group. This is what the scientists are studying: why is our in-group identity, & it’s out-group corollary, so key to human nature? Did this aspect of our nature convey some kind of evolutionary advantage to our species? What’s the response of our brains &/or hormones that kicks in when we’re really feeling good about our in-group, or fearful of the out-group? What happens when this tendency goes awry? One aspect that’s especially interesting to me at the moment is when & why loyalty can sometimes just be a habit, even an unhealthy habit (e.g., Big Macs – not that my unhealthy consumption loyalty is necessarily to Big Macs, but you know what I mean, right?).
Many took Samwise for a loyal-but-slightly-dull-Frodo-follower, only later recognizing that all of beloved Middle Earth would have been destroyed in the Ashes of Evil but for the strength of Sam Gamgee’s loyalty to Friendship & the Unquestionably Worthy Cause. This is the grand vision of loyalty – when there’s no question about the rightness of the in-group & the wrongness of the out-group. For the rest of us, though, I like this one:
“To be loyal and not bound.”