Honor and Commitment

It would be easy to dismiss the David Petraeus – Paula Broadwell affair as yet another case of a powerful man who couldn’t control his lower urges. It is tempting to laugh it off as yet another example of uptight Anglo-American morals being hopelessly outdated. Both of those approaches would be wrong.

From Forbes comes this essay discussing “the danger of male mentors” and asking “is there an inherent danger in younger women pursuing mentor relationships with powerful older men? Does that leave women in a double bind that hampers their advancement?”

I usually think of myself as a person, not as a man. But as a man this affair and these questions offend me. I’m better than this, and I expect other men to be better than this too.

I am a 50 year old, mostly-healthy, straight man. I am currently mentoring a 21 year old woman. Erin is young, friendly, energetic and attractive. But I can’t even contemplate an affair with her. I don’t mean I won’t let myself think about it, I mean my brain won’t go there. I imagine this is how I’d feel about a much younger sister, if I had a sister.

Why is that? Because I have commitments I am honor-bound to keep and those commitments are stronger than any attraction I may feel.

I have a commitment to Cathy. Our wedding vows are important, but more important are the commitments we made to each other in the months before the wedding. In our conversations – mostly informal – we discussed what we expected from each other, individually and as a couple. Monogamy was something we both wanted and both agreed to.

There can be love, honor and support in a polyamorous relationship. There can be love, honor and support in an open relationship. But that wasn’t the arrangement Cathy and I made all those years ago. If one of us wanted to change that arrangement it would require an explicit discussion… and I have my hands pleasantly but completely full with one partner, thank you very much. I imagine Gen. Petraeus’ marriage was established under the same parameters – he betrayed his commitment to his wife.

I have a commitment to Erin. She came to me to learn how to be a better priestess and leader – that is the foundation of our relationship. We have become good friends, but as a mentor I have an obligation to keep her learning and growth in the forefront and to not do anything that will detract from it.

There is a huge difference between us in age, experience and knowledge and therefore in power. That power imbalance makes it impossible for us to bargain as equals. As the one with the most power in the relationship I have the primary responsibility to make sure that power is used appropriately. That’s why we put teachers in jail when they have sex with their students even if the student is over 18 – it’s an abuse of power.

Ms. Broadwell is 40 and a powerful woman in her own right. But Gen. Petraeus is (or was) one of the most powerful men in the world and their relationship was established as one of mentor and student. He made a commitment to Ms. Broadwell when he agreed to be her mentor and he betrayed that commitment.

I have a commitment to my gods and goddesses and to my tradition. I agreed to be a mentor because Erin shows great promise. She is already a competent priestess and if her commitment to study and practice remains strong she will someday surpass my skills and accomplishments, and not by a little. I am honored the gods have seen fit to let me play a part in her training. If I do my job properly, our religion and the values it promotes will grow and prosper. If I betray their trust and exploit this sacred obligation, I’ll diminish my tradition and I’ll have to answer to my goddesses and gods.

Did I mention Erin is dedicated to Morrigan?

Paula Broadwell is a West Point graduate, served 15 years as an active duty officer and remains a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves. She has two masters degrees in government-related fields and was a prime candidate for leadership positions in public service. In agreeing to be her mentor, Gen. Petraeus wasn’t just helping Broadwell, he was developing a resource for the country. Their affair has deprived the United States of not one but two skilled officers.

There is a simple evolutionary explanation for why men and women do things like this – see the Forbes article if you don’t know it. That explains it, but it doesn’t excuse it. The concepts of honor and commitment – as well as much of religion – were developed to help us overcome evolutionary instincts that served our pre-human ancestors well but are not helpful in human societies. Military officers are drilled on these concepts throughout their careers.

If West Point needs to upgrade their training for mentor / student relationships I know a couple Pagans in Texas who can show them how it’s supposed to be done.

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About John Beckett

I grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside my back door. Wandering through them gave me a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God. I’m a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. I’ve been has been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years. I live in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and I earn my keep as an engineer.


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