I stand at the door of the dreaded “networking lunch” at a conference. The feeling of isolation sweeps over me. I could make a thousand excuses for not being here now. I know not a soul in the room. I must be the out of place one. “Must”¦..get”¦”¦over”¦..yourself”¦.,” I struggle to pray in my head. I am not, by nature, an extrovert, so these situations are truly challenging for me. I have, however, found a way through that never fails.
As I look at any room full of strangers, I frame them all as creations of God. Each of them has a story of what brought them to this moment, ways they have experienced this life differently than I, perhaps knowledge or insights meant for me or, better yet, perhaps a need that I can help them fulfill. I learned through Ignatian spirituality that you do not fear someone whose story you know. I live by this mantra so much that I am more comfortable meeting someone for the first time and simply asking, “Hi; what’s your story?” rather than the proscriptive, “Hi; how are you?” The story question sometimes throws people off just enough to open up a little more sincerely, and in that awkward space there is enough true presence to the other for a seed to be planted, for a relationship of sharing to begin. Everyone has a story.
And the question never fails. The stories people share with me about their lives (not always right off the bat, but as the conversation continues) open up worlds to me that I never knew existed. I have learned about everything from pumpkin chucking to flipping cars, about dreams realized and about the road not taken, about hometowns and crazy adventures, about illnesses and recoveries. It seems the more questions I ask about someone’s story, the more a given person comes alive that someone wants to know him or her. “So how did you manage that?” “How did that feel?” “What are you hoping for?” One question leads to another and the walls come tumbling down. I worry about not fitting in or knowing anyone, but as soon as I realize it is not about me, but it is all about the other person, the dreaded lunch becomes a golden opportunity.
Sometimes these conversations have created lifelong friendships, but most of the time they are at best the consolations of my Examen. I am left at the end of the day with nothing but gratitude for the unexpected face of God that I met and one more lesson to remind me to get my fears out of God’s way.