Essay 4 in a Series by Hector of the Black Height
People work hard to attain the status of a Peer within the Society. People have striven for such recognition for years; in some cases, for decades. Many Peers are exceptionally good at what they do. I have met people who truly believe that Peers in their chosen fields of interest are "god-like beings" (that's a direct quote from an otherwise sane person in the Middle Kingdom with a real life outside the SCA. Honest). Into this heady and high-pressure atmosphere -- where "Peer Fear" isn’t a phenomenon, it’s an epidemic -- we as a culture allow Peers to enter into ongoing relationships with dependants.
As I said in my previous essay, each relationship differs; when dealing with human beings, such variation is inevitable. I've thought about these relationships a great deal, and in my case I think I can explain some of what goes through my mind when I decide to take an apprentice or a protégé.
First of all, I am very aware of a hierarchy of relationships within the contract represented by a belt. At the bottom of that hierarchy is master-apprentice or master-protégé. Within the Society everyone is considered, for purposes of the great game we play, to be noble -- at least until their conduct proves them to be otherwise! I don't think a dominant/subservient relationship accomplishes much in that situation. Dependants are not chattels to be collected and used. They are people, and as people they have worth. As I have stated elsewhere (see The Tidings, September 1997), I believe that all who play in the great game are empowered to act in a noble manner to recognize the worth of others. If I believe that anyone -- including my dependants -- can be ring-givers in the courts of the mighty, what weight can I give a subservient relationship?
Well above the level of master-dependant I see a separate relationship, of teacher-student. There is no question that an apprentice or protégé comes to me to learn and enters into a contractual relationship with that in mind. At the same time that I make a conscious, deliberate commitment to teach, I also know that our relationship will evolve and that the dependant will grow within his or her field of endeavour. Also, the dependant brings to the relationship many skills and experiences outside the specific field of "contractual" interest. I truly believe, after some time has passed and the relationship has settled down into a pattern comfortable for both parties, that one should never be quite sure which of the two is the teacher and which is the student at any given moment. Whether they were aware of it at the time or not, my dependants have taught me a little sleight-of-hand, Germanic prosody and language, corporate organizational techniques, leadership tips and even how to re-wire my basement. They've also been my sources of inspiration and ideas and enthusiasm. I've been playing this game thirteen years; second-hand enthusiasm is a useful thing at this stage in my life!
Finally, at the pinnacle of my hierarchy of relationships is friendship. If I am not a friend to my apprentices and protégés, what's the point of associating myself with them? If we're not friends, how can the relationship work? I have wonderful dependants; best of all, through the giving and receiving of belts I have made wonderful friends with some terrific people.
As an aside, I had an apprentice return my belt and end our contractual relationship a while back. Real life crept up on me and I couldn't live up to the contract we had set at the outset of our relationship. Fair ball; that's why contracts can and do end. I am pleased to believe that we remain good friends even if this person is no longer my apprentice; neither of us drew any pleasure from seeing the contract end, but the friendship that grew during our "formal" relationship has survived the necessary end of that contract.
I also was once a dependant to a Peer. I found that my expectations of this relationship were not being met and I turned in my belt. This was a much less pleasant experience than the one I lived through more recently. My belief when I turned in my belt was that the contract wasn't working out; the relationship wasn't happening the way I hoped, at any level, especially as friends. In this case whatever friendship we had suffered severely and has never recovered to its earlier level.
I think friendship and its attendant virtues (which include respect, trust, love and compassion) are at the heart of any good, lasting relationship between a Peer and a dependant. I believe friendship also is why these belts and these relationships matter so much, and can hurt so much when they don't work the way we plan or hope. To quote William Butler Yeats, "Tread softly because you tread on my dreams." In the idealized world of the Peerage within our idealistic Society, the bond of Peer and dependant can be a dream or a nightmare, or it can be something terribly common and unimportant. I know which is best of the three options; I'm not sure which is worst.
On to Part 5
Copyright 1997, 1998 Arthur McLean. All rights reserved.