Growing up Southern Baptist, my sisters and I were taught that among the commandments, and among all virtues, the greatest is love. In the years since then, after moving to a small family farm in north Mississippi, I’ve learned that there is sometimes one virtue even greater: loyalty. It’s primitive. It’s instinctive; God’s creatures abide by it naturally, without commandments. It takes a well-trained and highly skilled dog to separate cattle or sheep from one another—they stick together so closely. It takes a crafty herdsman to separate a mare from her colt—she’ll guard it with her life.
I developed an obsession with horses when I was a young teen, and I remember a debate my father and grandfather had back then, over whether or not man (or woman’s) best friend actually is a dog, or whether a human’s best friend might sometimes be a horse. They reached no conclusion that evening, but in the years since then, I’ve found the original saying to be most accurate. A horse is a fine animal, and can be a fine friend—your very best buddy in some cases. But horse handlers know what it means when someone “bites you in the back” or “kicks you in the teeth.” We get these idioms from horses because they do those things to their friends sometimes. They’re too much like people in certain respects: on some level, and usually on several levels, they’re still self-serving. A good horse, even the best horse, is still capable of betrayal under the right circumstances, because her most basic instinct is to preserve her own life and her own interests. Most of the time, horses won’t die for you. Most of the time, they won’t live for you, either. The horse, on a primitive level, knows that running with the group is easiest, but instinct reminds her every now and then to always look out for number one. For a horse, loyalty sometimes runs contrary to survival. A dog, on the other hand, knows on a primitive level that loyalty is survival. Many dogs would die and have died for their masters and their friends. They’ve been known to live for those masters and friends, too.
I think back sometimes to the old Sunday school story from 1 Samuel about David and Jonathan—about their loyalty to one another in a friendship so fierce that only death could divide it. Jonathan was willing to give up his claim to the kingdom of Israel because he loved and believed in David, and was willing to be loyal to their covenant of friendship no matter what it cost him. The story has meaning far beyond the realms of modern Judaism or Christianity—it has meaning for every one of us. Blood may be thicker than water, but loyal friendship is thicker than blood. It’s thicker than milk. It’s thicker than sorghum molasses. This I believe.
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