I often find people talking about the importance of action in meetings and I often feel like there’s a disconnect when they do. We so easily fall into what I call “action theatre” making spurious distinctions. We disparage “all this talk” and demand “action” as if they are entirely separate things, with the former being valid only if it leads to the latter. As I wryly point out sometimes, such urgent demands for action over talk are rarely expressed in mime. And the call to action often feels like someone walking into the room, rolling their eyes and complaining how messy it is. And then leaving without picking anything up (but having deposited a generalised sense of shame on everyone else).
Another way to look at this is to say it promotes the language of power and demotes of the languages of meaning and, especially, feeling.
Now underneath these ideas about actions, meaning making and feeling is a deeper point that these things are not actually different things at all. This is where a conversation last night with Ian Drysdale sparked my attention.
He pointed me to this marvellous passage from Erich Fromm’s Art of Loving, which I hope I’ve transcribed accurately.
If we say love is an activity, we face a difficulty which lies in the ambiguous meaning of the word ‘activity.’ By ‘activity,’ in the modern sense of the word, is usually meant an action which brings about a change in an existing situation by means of an expenditure of energy. Thus a man is considered active if he does business, studies medicine, works on an endless belt, builds a table, or is engaged in sports. Common to all these activities is that they are directed toward an outside goal to be achieved. What is not taken into account is the motivation of activity. Take for instance a man driven to incessant work by a sense of deep insecurity and loneliness; or another one driven by ambition, or greed for money. In all these cases the person is the slave of a passion, and his activity is in reality a ‘passivity’ because he is driven; he is the sufferer, not the ‘actor.’ On the other hand, a man sitting quiet and contemplating, with no purpose or aim except that of experiencing himself and his oneness with the world, is considered to be ‘passive,’ because he is not ‘doing’ anything. In reality, this attitude of concentrated meditation is the highest activity there is, an activity of the soul, which is possible only under the condition of inner freedom and independence.
He then continues
One concept of activity, the modern one, refers to the use of energy for external aims; the other concept of activity refers to the use of man’s inherent powers, regardless of whether any external change is brought about. The latter concept of activity has been formulated most clearly by Spinoza. He differentiates among the affects between active and passive affects, ‘actions’ and ‘passions.’ In the exercise of active affect, man is free, he is the master of his affect; in the exercise of a passive affect, man is driven, the object of motivations of which he himself is not aware. Thus Spinoza arrives at the statement that virtue and power are one and the same. Envy, jealousy, ambition, any kind of greed are passions; love is an action, the practice of a human power, which can be practiced only in freedom and never as the result of a compulsion.
So here is a different way to classify our meetings and conversations. Instead of focusssing on talk vs action, we might consider whether we’re really speaking from some sense of inner connection and passion or instead setting ourselves apart from our humanity and our colleagues.
Ian said he liked the idea that one could be a passion rather than have one, and that might be a more succinct version of the same thought. Spinoza, as channelled by Fromm, distinguishes passion from love and perhaps we need to qualify what exactly we mean by passion but I think Ian’s onto something.