Every year at this time, I teach Romeo and Juliet to my eighth grade English class. I love teaching this play to this age group. Most of them enter into reading and discussing it thinking that it’s a touching romantic love story. They’re very surprised to discover that the whole debacle unfolds over a five day period and leaves six people dead. Far from a touching romance, it’s a bloodbath born of five varieties of unrestrained love. My class this year is a really special group of people. While there is the usual contingent of squirrely adolescents, they’re also wise beyond their years, highly verbal and deeply thoughtful. As we discussed the five types of love in the play, one of my students said, “When we’re talking about familial love, love of your family’s honor, aren’t we really talking about loyalty?”
What an interesting thought. Loyalty is generally good, isn’t it? But then, so is love. Can’t loyalty be taken too far? If you love your family, or the idea of your family, too much, as Tybalt does, isn’t that just as bad as loving someone so much that your own identity is subsumed in his? Juliet gives up her name for Romeo when she has known him all of fifteen minutes. She can imagine no world without him by her side, as he can imagine no world without her. Is that really healthy? Tybalt is rude to his uncle and risks bringing social embarrassment on his household because he is so zealous about protecting his family’s “honor” that he is willing to kill Romeo while Romeo is a guest at a Capulet party. When love for, or loyalty to, a group overwhelms respect for the individuals in that group, doesn’t that presage disaster? Shakespeare certainly seems to think so.
I grew up at a time when loyalty to country, AKA patriotism, meant that you should never question your government’s actions. America, love it or leave it. These days, loyalty to a political party seems to trump loyalty to country. If the other guy wins the election, that’s tyranny and we gotta secede. If we win, that proves our ideas are best and the other side is morally bankrupt. Or is that just what the media feeds us? Do most of us really live in a grey area of nuance? The place where loyalty and constructive criticism meet?
It’s been brought to my attention over the years that my sense of loyalty doesn’t always serve me well. For years, I’ve gone to the same woman to cut my hair not because she’s particularly good at it (as my husband and certain friends have pointed out on multiple occasions), but because I like her. We developed a friendship over the years, and I care about her. She knows about my trials and tribulations raising my step-children and I know about her divorce, her subsequent dating fiascos, her child rearing quandaries. She’s funny and sassy and opinionated, all of which I love. But I’d rather see her for a glass of wine than a haircut. So after years of dithering and hesitation, I’m now going to someone new. I feel guilty and I don’t like her as much, but my hair looks great.
Perhaps in a slightly more meaningful context, I felt a decidedly misplaced loyalty to the ophthalmologist who performed my Lasik surgery. Oh, him I disliked intensely, but I always figured, because he did the surgery, he knew what he was doing. I finally realized what an arrogant jerk he was when John and I encountered him at a local restaurant. He was solo, a good three sheets to the wind when he staggered up to us and shook my hand. Then, turning to John, he said, “Don’t worry, I’m her doctor, not her lover.” Okay, eww! I mean, really? What do you even say to that? John looked like he wanted to deck the guy. And, by the way, came up with a pretty good comeback which he chose not to say until the jerk was out of earshot, showing yet again the class that is one of the many reasons I love him. So after putting off my yearly eye appointment because I didn’t want this slimeball anywhere near me, I finally found a new optometrist who quickly informed me that, although I have been told for years that my eyes are corrected to 20-25, they are nowhere close to that. Not only that, but it is no big deal to actually correct them to 20-25. So after over a decade of accepting that when someone said to me, “See that dog over there?” I would have to answer, “No,” it turns out that in a few days, I will.
So that’s why I’ve been questioning the value of loyalty lately. Then, the other day, a friend sent me an article about a German Shepherd, Tommy, who continues to attend mass every day at his owner’s church even though she died over a year ago. If you knew my friend, you’d recognize why this story was such a profound example of canine loyalty; she can be polite during a church service when she’s required to go, but she would never attend one voluntarily. Were she Tommy the German Shepherd, it’s far more likely that you’d find her hoisting one to her owner’s memory at the local sidewalk café.
Pluis, our trainer, often admonishes the class, “Our dogs must find us terrifically boring.” All we do is stare at a computer screen, sit around reading, leave them alone, worry about the state of the world. Any sensible being should know that if you are not sleeping or eating, you should be playing, running, chasing, digging, sniffing, tasting, repeat. Yet here is Cleo on this most boring weekend when I have been laid out by either the flu or the worst cold I’ve had in years (and after reading the flu.gov site, I’m going for the former), and what is she doing? Well, right now she’s lying on the chaise in her characteristic Kilroy position, chin hanging over the back edge, so that she can watch me type. Moments ago when I got up in search of my water glass, she followed me into the bedroom (Are we napping again?), back to the kitchen (What are you gonna do in here?), to the living room (Are we going somewhere?), back to the bedroom (I guess we’re napping), back to the kitchen (What are you doing?) and finally into my office where, with a resigned sigh, she left me at the computer and returned to the chaise. As I napped earlier, she stood guard (snoozed guard?) over me, springing up at odd sounds, ready to protect and defend if the need arose. Or at least, that’s how I interpret her sudden leaps to rigid-legged attention and heart-stopping outbursts of alarm-bark. Dogs are not in relationships with us for what they can get. They love us in a way that is far too easy to take for granted.
And that is the true meaning, and the real value, of loyalty.