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On Power and Love

“To be able to break down the barrier of space between self and other, yet at the same time to be able to maintain it, this seems to be the paradox of creativity.” ~ from The Forms of Things Unknown

Coming across this quote prompted me to go back and explore the notes I took at Adam Kahane’s talk in January 2012. This tension between self and other, from Adam’s perspective, also describes solving tough problems in complexity. How? It has to do with power and love.

Adam invited us to suspend our current understanding of power and love for the duration of his talk. He wasn’t talking about power over or oppression only, or falling in love or romance. Instead Adam uses definitions of power and love from the theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich:

  • Power: The drive of everything living to realize itself, with increasing intensity and extensity. So power in this sense is the drive to achieve one’s purpose, to get one’s job done, to grow.
  • Love: The drive towards the unity of the separated. So love in this sense is the drive to reconnect and make whole that which has become or appears fragmented.

Then layer in the concept of holons, where all entities are wholes and parts. In understanding love and power it’s very important to know at any given moment which entity you are talking about, as every social holon has two sides:

  1. The drive to realize itself (power to). The degenerative side, power-over, is the stealing or suppression of the self-realizing of the other.
  2. The drive to unite the separated (love). Our love is degenerative when it overlooks, denies or suffocates power.

As I’m paging through Adam’s book, Power and Love: A Theory and Practice of Social Change, I find a gift I left for myself. A scrawled note “add to my pre-work”, with the following questions circled:

  • Where is the power here?
  • What is each of the actors (including ourselves) trying to realize here?
  • What are their positions, needs and interests?
  • Whose voices are being heard and whose are not?
  • Where is the love here?
  • How are the actors separated, and how are they unified?

Good questions to help make visible the power and love we are working with. But now what? Is it about choosing between power or love? Adam suggests that there is a permanent tension and we can’t choose, but we resolve it by cycling between the two. He described:

Is love dominating? Make a power move. Assert or build the individual (yes I’m part of but I’m also a whole). Is power dominating? Make a love move. Bring together and connect, reveal or build integration (we’re parts of something larger – oneness). In multi-stakeholder dialogue, the first act of bringing the parts together is in essence a love move. Unite the separated. That alone is not enough – the oneness. Social change happens when power can be exercised. The group sees the connections, organize, choose and act on their own course of self-realization. You get power flowing out of love.

I know I’ll return again and again to Adam’s perspectives as I work with groups. To exercise love and pay attention to power.

“And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites – polar opposites – so that love is identified with resignation of power, and power with the denial of love. Now we’ve got to get this thing right. What [we need to realize is] power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.” ~ Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. 1964 (source: Library of Congress)Creative Commons License Mike Licht via Compfight


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