4. Where is love's agency?
A question that came to me in the night: What if we see the source of love as being collective, not individual? It's the kind of enquiry question that might sit well at the centre of a Collective Presencing circle. Thought-provoking. Perspective-shifting. Challenging. Perhaps this arose in me as a result of writing the previous piece, which included both Collective Presencing and polyamory as examples of practice. It also serves as one point of potential difference, of possible divergence, and I see the divergence between the two mainly in their mode of thought. I also see a beautiful reconciliation of the two as being possible.
What I read of polyamory seems mainly to stay within the mind-set of individualism; of self-authorship. Kegan's 4th order. It still seems mostly to be about finding or creating situations where more of one's needs are met. But not entirely so, and I see this as a positive pointer in polyamorist thinking. The concept termed ‘compersion’ (a nice neologism for an old idea) is well defined in Wiktionary and explained for example here – or just use a search engine! That is a great example of polyamory thinking going beyond the individual's needs. Collective Presencing, on the other hand, is based, not just on individuals seen as separate, but individuals alongside the collective ‘middle’. People speak to ‘the middle’, and work inwardly so that they are more and more able to speak ‘from the middle’.
What I'm pointing to here is that the agency of love, within polyamorous thinking, is still seen as in the individual; while agency in Collective Presencing is seen also as collective. So, while I haven't yet heard explicitly in a Collective Presencing session that the agency of love can be ‘the middle’, it seems to me perfectly in keeping with the overall mind-sets I have seen that love could be experienced as arising from the middle.
Let me try to explain more about what I mean. If the agency of love is the individual, as with polyamory, and perhaps the default assumption in our culture, that means that individuals are understood or experienced as ‘owning’ their love, and being able to make choices about it, positive or negative.
This is perhaps a relatively modern way of thinking. We are still familiar with the character of the god Eros from Greek mythology, shooting his arrows, causing irresistable erotic attraction. And in one of Shakespeare's plays we read that, supposedly “hanging and wiving goes by destiny”, implying that individuals have little choice in such matters.
The tradition of arranged marriages seems more ambivalent to me. On the one hand, it could be interpreted as meaning that individuals have complete control over their affections, and that once a spouse has been chosen for you, you will be able voluntarily to love that person. On the other hand, it could mean that we do not know enough to know whom we will love in the long term, and they must be chosen for us.
The idea that we are not in control of our own love doesn't sit well with a culture in which the norm is to fall in love, marry, and then to choose to dedicate our love lives to that person, eternally. On the other hand, the romantic-monogamous ideal simply isn't real: it matches neither with the fact that only a minority of the married actually confine their sexual relationships to marriage; nor with the prevalent practice of serial monogamy, which I guess is more of a norm these days than lifelong monogamy.
Whichever way I looked at it, it just didn't quite fit. Whether from ancient tradition or modern reality, the truth seems to be that we are not the sole agents of our love, and maybe not even the main agents. Where is that agency, then? It is out of the middle of this conundrum, this puzzle, that the insight came to me.
For sure, I'm not going along with a mythology-driven fatalist attitude to love. But then I recall that those who were not given love as infants have much more difficulty in loving other people later in life. I recall the quote: “We love because he first loved us.” Those are bridges from wider, older wisdom, to where I want to take us in this piece: towards exploring the perspective of the collective, or something wider, as the true source of love.
If we hold that in mind as a possibility, that we as individuals are not the principle origin of love, then many matters fall into place in my — I was going to say ‘mind’, but I realise that it is a bodily feeling as well as a mental one.
If the source of love is beyond us, then what do we need to do? First, to stop obstructing it! (I was going to say “for heaven's sake” or even “for God's sake”, and suddenly realised that those phrases, though sadly debased, fit perfectly in this context.) The first of the Quaker ‘Advices and queries’ goes:
“Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Trust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.”
This is such a common thread weaving together Quaker worship and Collective Presencing. Trust the promptings of love in your hearts. There is no guarantee that you will not make a fool of yourself by doing that, but in the end there is no better way, perhaps no other way, because rational thinking cannot show the way in this territory. So, we could interpret, take the risk, be vulnerable, and trust that prompting. Maybe it feels less risky across a video call? If I mess up I can disappear and no one will find me. But it is still a real risk, to real relationships built up over time, albeit remotely.
And also, let's not pretend that it is always very clear. The promptings of love and truth in one's heart are not, to begin with, easy to distinguish from the promptings of self-satisfaction, personal safety, defence against loss of control, and so on. But in a collective space of practice, this becomes gradually easier to discern. It is easier to see in retrospect what good fruit came, or did not come. And we can judge by the fruit, and learn to discern that way.
Then, also, there is a second requirement on us. We need to be open to receiving the love that others offer. And this has its own tricky corners. So-called ‘love’ offered in a self-serving way is not fit to be received, so we need to have our senses open to the spirit in which it is offered. Here, collective sensing can be so helpful. If it is not clear to us, it is often clearer to others. And also, if the love offered comes from promptings of the heart, not of the ego, then it may not be from an expected place. Indeed, it could easily be from an unexpected place! So, again, it takes more openness than maybe we are used to.
Our emotional history and adverse childhood experiences often lead us to be stuck in the patterns of love that we crave for. In the most obvious example, if a parent did not give us the love that we needed, it is so easy to get stuck in patterns of wanting love from someone who reminds us of that parent. So here, the task is to open ourselves to the unexpected, where the unexpected is not only sourced from the collective, but is also discerned by the collective – the close-knit, trusting, loving collective.
There is also a real danger in all this, if the collective itself is unhealthy. Perhaps this needs a higher order of stewardship, from people outside that collective, to keep an eye open for dis-ease in the collective body. There can be a collective entrancement, and it can last for a surprisingly long time. On the other hand, there is always also the possibility that a healthy collective becomes sick.
Maybe, ultimately, our personal responsibility lies not so much with ensuring that we have done all our personal work (does that ever even finish?), withdrawn all our projections, or worked through all our traumas, but rather it lies with our responsibility to choose, and indeed co-create, that collective wisely. What we need are the conditions in which we can thrive, alongside the collective thriving.
This theme – that we can never be sure where the love we need at any moment will come from, and that we therefore need to put away our assumptions, and be ready for any healthy offerings – seems to me to be helped by a belief that love's agency is beyond us as individuals; that it comes through the collective community, and quite possibly from beyond that (a matter more for theology).