Die Hard and the Meaning of Life: The Undeniable Attraction of Loyalty

I was watching a movie with my wife when I had an epiphany. I don’t want to tell you which movie because it doesn’t matter, and I would really rather not reveal the ham-fisted taste I have in movies anyway. But I was watching this movie and there came a point in the story that you will recognize because it’s part of every movie ever made – where the hero, who was obviously so committed… alright, I’m not going to be able to explain this without telling you which movie, it was Die Hard.

Die Hard

Die Hard, 1988

…Ok see? Now you’re going “oh, one of those guys”. Fine. Yes, I am. I am totally one of those guys. And so is my wife. Anyway there came a point where I found myself delighting in the fact that John McClane was not going to stop trying to save the hostages, one of whom is his estranged wife, no matter what happens to him. No matter what challenges and risks are placed in his way – he is going to try to save them despite impossible odds. And I realized that it’s really his unshakable, defiant loyalty to the innocent people he cares about that makes you cheer for this guy; his belligerent loyalty – in the face of possible death – to protect and honor the people he loves, that is so positive and attractive. I realized that in one way or another some display of loyalty is at the root of every moment I’ve ever cheered during a film – or conversely a lack thereof when I’ve been angry at a character.  And as the thought rolled over me, quickly becoming more complex and patterned, I had this epiphany: that loyalty, in all its positive flavors, is maybe the most impressive, attractive, beautiful and powerful behavior humans can display to one another.

When someone says “No! There is one more guarantee you have. You can depend on me. I will be here.” is there anything more powerful and uplifting?

Like I said – it doesn’t matter that the movie was Die Hard, because it became clear that this was true of every movie I’d ever seen, of every character relationship I’d ever read. And, I realized, it must be true of nearly every kind of interpersonal relationship we have as humans.

The world can seem unfair. The only practical guarantee you have is the end. We live life under a looming cloud of uncertain timing; in so many ways the universe is not aligned to favor us. But when another person rises and defies the dearth of life’s promises and through action says “No! There is one more guarantee you have. You can depend on me. I will be here” – is there anything more powerful and uplifting? One person’s will against universal entropy.

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Lord of the Rings: the Return of the King, 2003

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Step Brothers, 2008

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Aliens, 1986

Good characters become bad guys when they are disloyal to the hero. And bad guys redeem themselves when they demonstrate a turn of loyalty to the hero. Back in my screenwriting days one of the mantras we carried with us was “Characters are what they do, not what they say.”

All sorts of interesting character dynamics emerge when we mix up what is said and done by a character. And when, despite claiming loyalty, a character sheds that and instead acts in his own self-interest, he transforms into a villain. That’s how important we naturally feel loyalty is. It seems there is nothing tragically, unjustly worse than losing the loyalty of another. The emotion is innate.  And gaining loyalty is similarly immediately endearing.

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Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981        Indy: “Give me the whip!”      Satipo: “Adiós, señor.”

Betrayed

The Lion King, 1994

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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, 2004

So I came to realize, maybe too late in life, that loyalty is perhaps the most profound, meaningful, beautiful and useful behavior humans can give to one another. Indeed, loyalty is perhaps the only meaningful measure of humanity. Loyalty to your fellow man.

Some would say that love, sits on that throne. And I suppose it does sit above in principle. “Love conquers all” as they say. But loyalty is the action; the visible, tangible expression of that love. The “what characters do”. One must act, sacrifice and possibly face critical risks to remain loyal. And let’s face it, it’s loyalty that makes love so wonderful in the first place.

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The Notebook, 2004

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Titanic, 1997

I don’t mean to knock love, but I guess it’s just that love is so abstract and effortless – love just happens. Why do you think we say “fall in love”? Love’s happenstance is captured in the iconic moment where two characters bump into one another at a corner. Or when they unexpectedly glimpse each other across a room – boom – “love at first sight”. It’s easy. No effort. No will. Indeed love has no real meaning until action is required. Love cannot be measured – except through displays of loyalty.

Marriage vows, although of course well-intentioned, are mere promises of eventual loyalty (remember, characters are what they do, not what they say). So long as life is easy, so long as there is no temptation or risk, love is easy to profess. And lets face it, it’s never easier than when the future seems bright, a roomful of loved ones are smiling, and champagne and cake are in hand. Rather, it’s when life becomes hard, perhaps many years and tragic events later, when the darkest of life’s unfortunate challenges are faced, that’s when love – through displays of loyalty – has meaning.

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Billy Elliot, 2000

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Avatar, 2009

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Drive, 2011

Even in unexpected places, loyalty plays an important role. I look around myself at work and I realize how grateful I am for those people who have stuck by me and the company’s mission, despite work’s up and downs. You know, those people who stick with you and seem almost immune to the business world’s constant seduction of self-interest. These are the people you want to reward. Because they have displayed such loyalty.

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Skyfall, 2012

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Schindler’s List, 1993

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Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, 1982

Forgive me, I’m on a journey; this may seem simplistic and naive to you. And observations like this don’t always have a practical application, but I suppose this one made me mindful of the importance of choosing my loyalties. Remembering that the measure of my loyalty is my action.  And it redefined what I look for and value in others.

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Office Space, 1999

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Léon: The Professional, 1994

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Cinema Paradiso, 1988

The ebb and flow of loyalties can make us feel joyful and loved, or drop us into profound sorrow. But a life filled with mutual, positive loyalties is filled with meaning, and I’m not sure there is anything more important in the world.