Nov 15, 2023

loyalty and limits

I got off social media at the end of 2020 for lots of reasons, and one of them was a wish to focus my friendship efforts more intentionally on fewer people than the platforms make possible. So, yes, I miss out on some of the photo updates of friends from college, and it pains me some days. But I make time to talk for an hour to an old friend going through a divorce. Can’t you do both, you ask? Well, sure, depending. I have three kids at home and two of us parents with full-time, project-led jobs right now. But it’s not just the minutes. It’s also the non-negotiable style of social media, keeping you up on folks in a staccato way, subbing in for the one-to-one engagement that makes it more possible and likely for people to reach out when they really need you, and vice versa. In midlife, it’s just more important to me to show up for some of my closest and longterm people, and time is just, you know, finite. The scrolling vacuums up the little in-betweener minutes. I’d rather text a bunch of individual people one at a time, with all the useful friction that requires.

All to say: in addition to the texting, I have lately taken up sending voice memos by text to a couple of friends. One is one of my bffs in Chicago who’s just re-entered grad school at 52, with kids at home and working part time and just in a nutty life moment. I want to accompany her when I can (she’s taking classes, I teach classes, there’s some academic stuff to share) — to hear about her adventures and relay my own in a new job. So we’ve been trading voice memos instead of talking or even texting. It’s just beautiful — the sound of her voice and all its idiosyncrasies, and the little time capsules we’re accumulating in this fleeting era of our kids’ foibles and hilarity. The other is a friend from high school whose mother just passed away. I am trying to show up for him with my actual speaking voice, rather than making a binary offer to either talk on the phone or not. It’s another mode of accompaniment, I hope.

This week I went to a lecture by the philosopher David McPherson about his latest book on the “limiting virtues”: humility, reverence, moderation, neighborliness, and loyalty. I’ll say more about this in a future newsletter, but he spoke most of all about “loyalty to the given world.” Each of these virtues, he says, gets its animus from taking a “accepting-appreciating” disposition toward what’s in front of us, rather than the much more popular “choosing-controlling” stance. (“Choosing-controlling” as a precondition for all our virtues isn’t just popular — it’s the substrate of contemporary American life, so internalized as to be an “unthought” in Foucault’s terms.)

“Loyalty to the given world,” then, is a twofold task. We have to see, accept, appreciate what’s right in front us — a friend in our lives who’s been there for 30 years, with whom the weight of shared experience alloyed to real affinity makes for a given that can’t really be interchanged with other friendships. Opting out of that relationship really isn’t on the table. It is a given fact of our lives. And our loyalty to that given is in ceding our capacity for endless choice, showing up with the limits intact — on our time and on our vanity. At the end of the lecture, I said to McPherson: “loyalty to the given world” is a beautiful phrase, but I wonder: Maybe we need to resurrect the plainer term of obligation and keep affirming it in a constitutive frame of the good life.