A few months ago I sat down to eat with Dr. Kwok Pui Lan. We were meeting because I had voiced some personal struggles during our class, and she offered to have a meal with me.
I was nervous, mesmerized by her accessibility – by her – for all the many things she has accomplished.
Over plates of chicken and rice, we sat, chewing. Professor and student. She smiled, and waited for me to start speaking. I told her in spurts that I was struggling through my semester at seminary and didn’t know what gave me hope anymore. I didn’t know why I was doing this. I asked what gave her hope.
“Well,” she said, “thirty years ago, there was no such thing as Asian feminist theology. My friends and I got together, and we started it.” She said, between bites of chicken. “You just started it?” “Yes,” she replied. She and her friends sat around, over glasses of wine, and talked.
And those nights of friendship became a global conversation.
The Science of Networking
Networking, we are told, is all about “who you know.”
Relationships are formed against the ticking of the clock. Many of us learn to wield technologies of codifying people, of performing cost-benefit analysis, on all the silly humans. Because, we tell ourselves, who has the time to sit around yapping?
I can speak for myself. There is a droning subtext undergirding many of my interactions, a coarse internal monologue.
“Loud thoughts,” as I like to call them.
Loud thoughts are my brain determining the potential for any given person to thrust me into new spaces and opportunities. Loud thoughts are thoughts about gain. Don’t get too friendly or vulnerable, my loud thoughts say, or you won’t have any space to ask for favors. You won’t have the “pocket change” that allows you to burden someone to get what/where you want. You will lose your dignity.
Desires and fulfillment. Supply and demand. Exchange, classifications, moires. Capitalism at its finest.
I have a certain birthright in this system as a millennial, pedigreed, hipsterchild of the internet. Conditioned to live, breathe and define connection. And yet, when I participate in these rituals, something feels broken. The plot contains a tragic hero. She longs for organic connection, for that ever-elusive experience of nurture – being seen – yet languishes away crunching people into flattened spaces, collecting contacts like virtual baseball cards.
Why does it feel so alienating?
Something in me senses a dry rot of formulaic brutality, and braces against it. Perhaps it is the element of force itself, the violent divide between vocation and personal life. Perhaps it is the act of commodifying the sacred. Whatever the reason for distaste, I have been trying to find a different way.
In my networking science, meeting people requires a huge amount of energy. It feels like going on a trip without sunscreen or water or directions. A recipe for panic, even for the gregarious.
Recently I puzzled that the word “expedition” has radically different meanings: expedition as “journey,” versus expedition as “making haste.”
These two ideas seem far apart, but maybe together they create one contiguous image.
What does it mean to relate to someone outside the heightened, phenomenal moment of being impressed (or non-impressed) with skillset, title, appearance or position? It means suspending the process of judgement of those elements.
What does it mean to connect with lifegivingness? It means not waiting to be profoundly seen. It means taking the first brave step to expeditiously encounter another.
It means doing things different.
In all the success books, we are told the most important aspect of a first impression is to “MAKE EYE CONTACT.” The command is given mechanically, as in, “step one: remove enema from pouch,” “step two: insert into rectum.”
For me, this language isn’t helpful. It’s too active. It carries an aggressive posturing, a dark shade of control mongering. To me, its more helpful to think of “meeting” someone’s eyes, letting their presence occur to me, fluidly. Gauging their state, listening to signals, through a simplicity of beingness. In other words: calm the heck down, take a deep breath, and be a human.
Second comes the shaking-of-the-hands ritual. I understand this as an ideal form of masculine exchange: firm, concise, stoic. And yet we overlook the symbolism, the tangiblity, of two palms meeting. For a faint moment, I am connected to the pulse of a stranger, and in that moment, the strangerhood dissolves. Within this meeting, each person maintains their own sense of balance while reaching into a new space – a personhood space, a space of new knowing. To feel the mystical trust and bond of this moment, and not toss it aside, is a full body effort.
Third, we hear this person’s name, often before we are ready. For many of us, retention of this single piece of information becomes an Everest challenge against a black hole of sensory stimuli and consumer self-consciousness. Loud thoughts pound us like waves on a cliff; overpowered by noise, the name melts into the depths, ungraspable. It might be three or four or eighteen tries before the name “sticks.” One option, we hear, is to use parlor tricks to drill the information into our brains (e.g., “Sandy with the eyebrows”), but this doesn’t prove we have understood the name or its significance.
Imagine for a moment, suspending the Loud Thoughts. Imagine relaxing the aggressive posturing, and allowing ourselves the simplicity of being, of presence, of breathing in friendship. The name of the other person becomes an aspect of their personhood. The name is allowed to fall into the realm of thirst for meaning, rather than put on the list of to dos.
Meeting as presence means a genuine desire to experience the humanity, the breath, the hope of the other.
Beyond Networking: Encounter as Presence
Back to the story about Dr. Pui Lan. Allow me to demystify the magic of turning friendship into a global movement: the magic is hard work, and strategically uttered words.
However, the backdrop of it all is friendship. Not contacts, not colleagues, friendship.
Building genuine friendships is a sacred occupation that permeates all aspects of life. There are no spaces inaccessible to friendship. The very idea friendship cannot reach certain spaces is antithetic to an ethic of interdependability.
What does it mean to go beyond networking? It means holding a holy curiosity that transgresses categories. It means looking toward a communion of spaces, looking toward embodied hospitality. This is where things “get done,” where peace is made real, and where hegemonic norms are confused.
Feminist relationality is more than a distilled method; it is a courageous reframing of human connection, and a joyful unmasking of the myth of the sanctioned.
Melody Stanford is currently pursuing a Master’s of Divinity at Boston University School of Theology with an interest in postcolonial feminist theology. She also works as a freelance graphic designer slash consultant specializing in non-profit and church messaging. Depending on the day you may find her moonlighting as a divorcée wanderer, a surreptitious artist, a blues dancer, a jazz crooner, a writer of prose, poetry and music, or a great enjoyer of mealtime conversations.