Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else
Loyalty is a Flaw
05/27/2014Posted by on
Life lessons come from strange places. I played a lot of a role playing games when I could as a kid, (and in Lewisian fashion, I no longer do childish things in secret as an adult) and one of them was 7th Sea. 7th sea was a lot of things to me, but most important is that it was a game about being a hero.
Heroes have been my moral lodestar since I was a child. I was introduced to C.S. Lewis in elementary school and it awoke a deep hunger. So I read. I read the Iron Man and Spider Man comic books, I read Star Wars novels, I read shōnen manga and I read Ender’s Game. I sensed, even then, that I was mostly reading the same thing over and over again, playing with the same themes, dressed up. It taught me a lot and made me a better person. I saw myself in nerdy Peter Parker, feared fear, anger and hate, and saw the monster every morning that Ender Wiggin saw in his mirror. A hero is defined by virtues and flaws, by character – allowing character to overcome the self in order to serve others.
A lot of reading led to a lot of role-playing games, and of those 7th Sea was the best. 7th Sea, now long out of print and development, is set in a fantastical version of 18th century Europe. It is a game of swashbuckling and sorcery, the kind that captured everything great about the Pirates of the Caribbean movies before the movies ever came to a theater near you. A cinematic game about heroes and villains. Mechanically, the game was inspired (though, I’ve come to realize, flawed) discarding realism in flavor of drama. Dice weren’t simulating reality – they were Drama Dice themselves, and they exploded on the table.
7th Sea allowed you to create a character that had an “arcana” – an especially powerful heroic virtue or heroic flaw. And in the middle of the flaw list, was loyalty. Mechanically, loyalty was obviously a disadvantage, a way for the game master to push players into dangerous situations by forcing a loyal character to refuse retreat from a wounded friend, even when the need was great. It still struck false in a game that otherwise captured heroes so well. After all, most of my favorite heroes were loyal, a virtue that all involved be they character, author, or reader, admired.
It took some life to really grasp why loyalty is a flaw. Some of it was realizing how much I forget about the people I thought I cared (positively, a little, negatively, a lot) about. The rest of it came from a few incidents where I did my best to publicly humiliate someone who had wronged people I cared about – more than I thought I had cared about them. I have come to see that in my worst moments I am the most damaged sort of pack animal – alone, but not a loner. I protect those I see as part of my pack, and it is an impulse spills out from a deep, deep well. I am loyal, and from time to time even heroically so. It is not such a good thing. There is a certain kind of desperation in the dark shadows of my soul, one that peaks erratically. The desperation corrupts the protective impulse like a cancer. The impulse to shield becomes the impulse to strike. A willingness to risk harm because a ruthless alacrity to risk doing harm. I become willing to hurt in order to prevent harm, to override what is willed in favor of what is best. Evil is fond of wearing the resolute mask of good.
There are a lot of excuses, but none of them carry. It is no help to say that violence is not my way, so little permanent hurt happens. It is of no help to say that they deserved it. It is of no help to say that the loyalty is appreciated by friends and that sometimes you really do need to transgress for the betterment of all. That good can come from evil impulse is a happy accident – or perhaps an intercession of Divine Grace – but it does not make that evil impulse good. Heroic loyalty is a form of selfishness. It is a an embrace of self-regard, a generosity delimited by the beholder’s preferences and wants. It is not about them in those moments of ruthless intercession, it is about me and what I will not allow to happen. Heroic loyalty puts the self in self-righteousness. To be heroically loyal is to reject obedience. Obedience to the rule of the community, obedience to a code of decency, obedience to the basic mutual respect of friends. The heroically loyal refuses to serve the greater good at the price of a friend, not because of the friend, but because of the fear of loss.
Heroic loyalty is a flaw because it comes from a fear of being alone with no pack to protect, and no reason to live on. A life lesson found in a child’s amusement.