Virtue and Sentiment

Time passes,  But memories linger on.  Long ago when I did not own a driver’s license, I was reliant on others to get me from one place to another.  It was Friday night and a friend of mine agreed to pick me up at a certain time.  I was fully expecting to enjoy an evening that offered much more than what our small apartment could offer.

I waited dutifully on the street corner for my friend to arrive.  Waiting is an experience that tests our patience.  And we spend a great deal of our life waiting: waiting in the doctor’s waiting room, waiting in line at the grocery store, waiting for the mail to come, waiting for it to stop raining.  And when we dine at a restaurant, it is we, the customers, and not the “waiters,” who do the waiting.

Samuel Beckett’s play, “Waiting for Godot” is about waiting for someone who cannot arrive because he does not exist.  It is a commentary on the futility of waiting in a world that is essentially absurd.  At least my friend exists, so I thought.  Time went by and the painful realization dawned on me that my waiting would prove futile and my friend would not arrive.  And so, at long last, I trudged back to our small apartment saddened by missing out on a promising evening and being stood up by my would-be friend.

A few days later, I confronted my absent driver and asked him what happened.  He showed no remorse and defended himself by saying, “I meant it at the time.”  I was an erasable commitment on his social calendar.  I did not know how to respond, though I knew that something very important was missing.  I also sensed that our presumed friendship was beginning to look rather frail.

I am often slow to figure things out.  My friend was content to stop at the level of sentiment.  He meant what he agreed to do at the time he agreed to do it.  His decision was ratified by a positive feeling.  But he did not carry it through and I was left on the street corner waiting until waiting no longer made any sense.

What was missing, I later realized  was the virtue of fidelity.  Fidelity is what binds us to our words, promises, oaths, and vows.  It gives us the strength to transcend momentary feelings and be true to our commitments.  It spans time, tying our pledge to what we promise. It also includes justice to others, those who rely upon another’s words.

Fidelity to one’s words is a good preparation for having fidelity to one’s promises, oaths, and vows.  A man who strays from his marriage vows cannot excuse himself by saying, “Well, I meant it at the time.”  We are bound by our vows.  They are not reducible to how we feel when we make them.  Sentiment is about the moment.  Fidelity is about the future.

I would have welcomed an apology from my friend, but not an excuse.  Saint John Paul II once remarked that “An excuse is worse and more terrible than a lie, for an excuse is a lie guarded.”  My friend was shielding himself against something he did not want to acknowledge, something missing that he felt the need to suppress.

Marriage can no longer be built on sentiment than a house can stand without a foundation.  Fidelity to one’s marriage vows is, as it were, the brick and mortar that holds the house of marriage together.  As Saint John Paul II has said to every bride and groom:  “You will reciprocally promise love, loyalty and matrimonial honesty.  We only want for you this day that these words constitute the principle of your entire life and that with the help of divine grace you will observe these solemn vows that today, before God, you formulate.”

People prepare for marriage when they honor the small commitments that make when they agree to do something.  As they strengthen the virtue of fidelity they, they will find it easier to keep their promises, be loyal to their oaths of office, and to abide by the vows they  exchange on their wedding day.

What I did not know while I was waiting for a ride that never came was that my unconscious would continue to mull over the matter and finally express itself in an article.  Therefore, I am indebted to my friend for rousing in me coherent thoughts about fidelity.  It is easy to end one’s life journey at the half-way house of sentiment.  But it is a far more exciting ride to span time, build for the future, and reach distant horizons.  Fidelity can give us a better ride than one could ever expect from a mere automobile.  All’s well that ends well.  All things come to those who wait.

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Dr. Donald DeMarco is Professor Emeritus, St. Jerome’s University and Adjunct Professor at Holy Apostles College. He is is the author of 42 books and a former corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy of Life.  Some of his latest books, The 12 Supporting Pillars of the Culture of Life and Why They Are Crumbling, and Glimmers of Hope in a Darkening World, Restoring Philosophy and Returning to Common Sense and Let Us not Despair are posted on He and his wife, Mary, have 5 children and 13 grandchildren.  

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