Is ‘the aspiration to love’ central to community participation 

In the last couple of weeks I’ve posted here on the subject of motivating positive public engagement through love (not fear) and the value of beautiful writing in community engagement.

Upon sharing the posts with my Linkedin friends, I received what I thought was a rather curious response:

“Very christian!”

This had me a little confused (particularly given my strongly atheistic tendencies). I certainly hadn’t written either post with even the slightest inkling that it might be influenced by or touch on religious teachings of any sort. And, if I’m honest, if that was the dominant message that was being read into my writing, I kind of felt like a bit of a failure as a communicator.

So I stewed for a little while.

And then I reflected. And I thought, well this might just be an interesting place to start a conversation, so I asked the obvious question: Why? Why is my writing “very Christian”?

and the response…

“…since we live out community participation ideas on top of western philosophical framework in which the aspiration to love and be ‘at one’ are central … “

Ah! Now this is interesting. It has absolutely nothing to do with my intended subject matter, but it is something I’ve vaguely thought about in the past. And something that I would like to explore more.

For the record, my previous posts were meant to explore the role of “love” in the form of creative expression as a mechanism to create a little wonder (and perhaps awe) in order that we might get people to interrupt their busy days to have conversations about things they might otherwise never give a thought to. They were NOT meant to be about “love” (in the sense of inclusiveness) as an aspiration for community engagement.

Secondly, I don’t believe for a second that the “aspiration to love” is innately Christian, particularly to the exclusion of other religious philosophies. I suspect that it is a reasonably universal construct that pre-dates anything to do with civilisation. That said, I do quite like this quote from 1 John 4:18…

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

As an aside, fear is something we deal with every day both in the business of doing business and the business of working with clients thinking about engaging communities around complex, and potentially fraught, issues. My least favourite opening to a sentence is “My fear is….”.

That said, we usually wrap fear up in a formal language around risk and the assessment thereof.

Risk assessment is just about the least interesting aspect of business to me. I’ve always found it stifling, draining, tiresome, tedious… I could go on, and on, and on…but my major objection to risk based decision making, that is fear based decision making, is that it stifles innovation, creativity, and, at least to a certain extent, joy. In the main, I think this is because the unfortunately all too common response to the identification of a risk is to over estimate the impact and thus to do nothing at all!

I’ve noticed over the years that many of the people I come across who are involved in community engagement of one sort or another, work, whether consciously or not, as community healers. They don’t like to see people in pain or conflict and work very hard to either remove the source of pain, or to help the individual or group work through conflict to a positive end.

I have a theory that they (we) get their (our) personal rent from the relationships we form through the conversations we have, the problems we solve, and ultimately, the healing we facilitate; whether personal or communal.

(The second part of this theory is that this need to develop personal relationships and see healing as a result of our work is the reason many (most) community engagement practitioners still find the idea of web-based engagement slightly foreign. Which would explain why its uptake remains relatively slow.)

Personally, I think this is something that sets community engagement (including community development) practice and practitioners apart from other communications and public relations professionals: The yearning to dig deeper to find and heal the source of pain (or, to discover the source of joy!).

So, is community engagement practice about being ‘at one’? Perhaps it is. But perhaps that has more to do with the people who work in the sector than any innate principle of the practice, objective of the organisations we work with, or cultural need brought about by the Judeo-Christian tradition.