The Wisdom of Stories: A Conversation with Enuma Okoro
Enuma Okoro is a Nigerian-American writer, speaker, and cultural curator who locates her work at the intersection of the arts, culture, storytelling and soul care, all of which she thinks can help point us to how to live. Enuma was born in New York and raised in Cote d’Ivoire, England, North America, and Nigeria.
Trained in psychology, family systems therapy, and theology, Enuma writes the weekend column “The Art of Life,” for The Financial Times and has authored several books on faith, spirituality, and contemplative life. Her writing has been featured in The New York Times, Harper’s Bazaar, The Guardian, Vogue, among many others. Her TEDx talk in London focused on how cultural collisions crack open new sides of our own stories, and her many speaking invitations have included Harvard Business School, Oxford University, Princeton University, and The American Church in Paris.
How would you describe the landscape of your childhood, and how did this context prepare you for the work you’re doing now?
I always try to make connections between seemingly disparate things. I think it is one of the foundational elements of my work, to take the things we might assume we have a handle on as individual ideas, concepts, or ways of being and show that multiple things can coexist and, actually, overlap, to show the necessary connections between things.
Perhaps because I was raised in a few different countries and numerous cities around the world. I grew up immersed in different cultures, engaging with people of various ethnicities. I suppose I learned to find the connections, to give some form and meaning to the life I was experiencing. I wasn’t doing this consciously, but it was a way for me to chart what was happening to me. This made me extremely observant. I’m someone who pays a lot of attention, in all the meanings of that phrase. Today, whether it’s through my writing or through curating conversations, I try to encourage people to pay a bit more attention to what’s happening in their lives, what’s happening around their lives, and where the intersections might be.
You graduated from Duke Divinity School with a Master of Divinity degree. What drew you to theological studies?
To be frank, God did. I really mean that. As a senior in college, I had a clear sense that I was supposed to go to seminary. I was baptized and raised Catholic, and I didn’t experience Protestant traditions until I was a teenager. In college, I wasn’t thinking about Catholic seminaries, though I still identify as Catholic now. When it first struck me, seminary seemed like such a foreign idea.
By the time I applied to Duke, a Methodist school, I was ready to say, “yes,” and face whatever God seemed to be beckoning me towards. I went with a bit of fear and trembling, though I was very clear I didn’t want to be a pastor. On a train ride to visit Yale Divinity School, I read Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas. I was so compelled, that by the time I left Yale, I thought, “Okay, he’s at Duke. I better look at Duke.” The rest is history.
I should also say... it wasn’t as though God, out of the blue, said, “You’re going to seminary.” Since I was six, I’ve been fascinated with the otherworldly. That’s what it was to me. From growing up Catholic, and attending Mass, I was in awe of Mary, the character and figure of Mary, and fascinated with the idea of a three-in-one God, the Trinity. Plus, I loved reading Greek mythology as a young child, which fed my love of stories about humans interacting with divine life.
The creative and the spiritual life are linked for me. I’ve always been a reader. I’ve always loved stories and poetry. To me, navigating a spiritual life is its own art form, in a way. Being raised in the Catholic Church, I was surrounded by the arts, both in the sense of visual arts and in the sense of the aesthetics of the faith tradition. I was so drawn to all of that, the smells and the sounds. As I look back on my life, with the clarity of hindsight, I can see the smoky wisp of the Spirit leading me in this way.
I love that phrase, the “smoky wisp of the Spirit.”
It took me a long time to recognize it, but even perhaps deeper than that, I recognize myself as “claimed.” I think we’re all claimed, but not everyone acknowledges it or determines what that means in their particular lives. But I think by the nature of being created beings, of being humans, there’s a claim on all our lives.
What was most formative about your time in divinity school?
I learned that saying “yes,” to divinity school didn’t mean I had to say “no,” to the arts. There is a centuries-old precedent for combining theology and the arts. In fact, I think humans have always done that since the beginning of time, even when we didn’t have names for it. Theology school gave me an amazing toolbox, a whole set of reflective tools and ways to think about how I engage in the world and how I read other texts. It gave me a new lens to put on as I walked through the world.
I can only speak for myself and people I know, but I think many of us endure poor theological formation as kids. There’s a lot of bad theology out there, and we take it in. We accept and create poor narratives for what it means for us to be “God lovers.” It doesn’t always look like love until you work it out and perhaps realize that your perceptions have been keeping God in a box. I went to theology school thinking I had a handle on who God was and how God showed up in the world. That was one of the first things that got ripped apart for me. I learned God doesn’t like to be boxed and can’t be boxed. Studying theology helped me realize that faith and the history of the tradition are not black and white. It raised many more questions, but, at the same time, strengthened my faith. It became more like actual faith.
There was something really powerful, and beautiful, and deepening, and enriching for me in studying scripture— the history of it. To have studied Hebrew and Greek, and to parse all these words in their original context. Even though I knew I didn’t want to be a pastor, I still had to take preaching classes, and I loved the research: parsing the words and understanding. I’ve always loved etymology, the meaning of words, in general. To add the theological layer to that was fascinating and taught me more about metaphor and symbolism. As a Catholic and as a writer, that’s a treasure. I love the sacraments. I love the idea of sacraments, not just the reality of them. I love the way sacrament opens up metaphor and symbolism. Symbolism, understanding the power of the symbolic, is such an important part of our lives.
For this project, I’m working with Walter Burghardt’s definition of contemplation, “a long, loving look at the real.” How does this framing resonate with your understanding of contemplation? Or perhaps not?
When we engage in contemplation, I think we’re opening ourselves up to be contemplated by the Holy. The looking goes both ways. For me, “practice” isn’t the right word.
I don’t see it as just twenty minutes of meditation in the morning or something you set a timer for. I see contemplation as a way of living. If a period of contemplation comes upon you and you’re open to receiving it, that’s part of the gift, but you also have the option of turning away from it.
I don’t think contemplation is fully describable because it falls into the realm of the spiritual. There’s some element of mystery which I don’t think we’re supposed to understand. I’m completely fine with that. I’m okay not understanding everything when it comes to faith and spirituality, even as I’m experiencing something. There are some things which are beyond language, to be honest. Contemplation is a looking and a being looked at. It’s an act of loving. It’s also an act of being loved.
That is such an interesting idea: contemplation is rooted in relationship. Transformation through a relational exchange.
The whole idea of the “real”? I’m not sure. I think some of the things we think of as “real” are not real at all. And conversely, some of the things we think are not real are actually the most real.
If someone were to say to me, “What does it mean to live a contemplative life, or try to?” I would respond, “I try to pay attention. I try to live attentively. And that means not just looking, but seeing, and being aware of when the Spirit wants to engage me, when Something looks at me a bit more intimately.” I’m fully aware there are times when I’ve sensed that and chosen not to turn and face what wants to look at me. I know then, that I’m the one who loses out.
Contemplation is a beautiful word and concept. There are parts that are within your control and other parts that aren’t, but I think whenever you experience it, it helps you see a bit more clearly what is real and what is not. It reminds me that there’s a thin line between the sacred and the profane. Everything, in fact, has the potential to be sacred, just as everything has potential to be profane. It depends on how you contemplate a thing.
When you considered becoming a Spiritual Director, what drew you to the Ignatian tradition? And are there teachings or practices you incorporate in your life or work today?
I loved how much the Ignatian tradition rooted you in life and corporeality. In daily life. In paying attention to your life. In the tangible. In honoring feelings. Ignatian spirituality felt a bit more embodied than some of the others, which resonated with me.
Ignatian spirituality helped me trust in my own beingness as well as recognize that I am inhabited by the Spirit. I learned that it’s okay to explore and honor embodiment. I remembered that in the faith tradition I follow and believe in, God took on flesh. There’s a lot to learn about oneself and of God through one’s flesh. Those of us who follow the Christian tradition could benefit from being reminded that flesh is good. Embodiment is good. And God shows up there.
We can so easily forget that, but it is essential to the Christian story.
My life was changed by a Catholic nun who was a spiritual director in the Ignatian tradition. I wanted to learn how to do for others what she had done for me, to learn about the tools and resources she had so I too could open spaces of transformation for others. I was trained as a therapist, so I’ve always been that person looking for ways to help people show up in their lives with more courage and curiosity. I hope I do a lot of that in my writing now.
My experience with the spiritual director opened up and expanded my idea of God, in a way that was so freeing. I sensed that more people might appreciate that. As I said earlier, many of us are raised with bad theology, which keeps us professing a caged God who can’t be put in a box. Spiritual Direction invites us to think about unboxing God.
What is one contemplative virtue you wish were a greater part of our shared language, as a society, and why?
We have to continually work at holding up hope, one of the most challenging and essential virtues. There’s so much hopelessness, and there’s so much fatigue, and there’s so much disorientation, and there’s so much unwellness right now. Because of that, I believe there’s an increase in violence, all sorts of violence we commit on ourselves and others, without any reason. I often say to my friends, “If I weren’t a person of faith, it would be so much easier to lose a sense of hope.” Once you begin to lose hope, it opens the door for all sorts of tumbling downhill.
Hope shapes our actions. Hope shapes our words, even if we’re not conscious of it. You think about people who are typically “glass half empty” people who say negative things and end up bringing others down. I’m not judging people who have a more negative perspective. I understand how easily that happens, and I believe a sense of hopelessness is at the root of that negativity. We need one another to keep bolstering up hope.
We need each other, both in despair and in realizing a vision for a world which could be more healing and just. There seems to be a distinct quality in the way Christian people, who take hope seriously, speak of hope.
What is hope? Faith in things not seen, right? Hope is rooted in trust. All the virtues, even the most common— faith, hope, and love, charity—are tied together. It’s like the “chicken or the egg.” They all play off each other and need each other. It is hard to live into one fully without the others.
We use the word “hope” inside and outside of sanctuary spaces. For me, as a person of faith, hope is strongly tethered to trust in God. Does “trust in God” mean you leave everything to a God in the sky to fix? It’s not that at all. It’s understanding that we don’t necessarily get to call the ending of things. In some ways, that is a gift because left to our own devices... well, you can see what’s happening in our world when we’re left to our own devices. But I believe God shows up through hands and feet. God shows up in multiple ways, but very much also through hands and feet, and through you and me, and through the choices we make.
The Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins said “Christ plays in ten thousand places.” I love that. There’s nowhere God cannot manifest God’s self, no context too barren or too horrific or too banal. And another line from Manley Hopkins I love, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.” Think about that image. Despite all the horrors, and the tragedy, and the brokenness of man and woman... the world is still full of the grandeur of God. I deeply believe that. It sustains me. I have to keep doing what I’m doing because I trust that I’m not working alone.
You locate your work at the intersection of storytelling and “soul care.” What does “soul care” mean to you?
“Soul care” means tending to our inner and outer lives with care and understanding that there is deep connection between the two. One affects the other. It means tending to our beings with intention and remembering that we are whole and holy. When I visualize soul care, I imagine caring for a wound tenderly. We’re all wounded, so for me, it is a way of living in which you are intentional about tending to your woundedness, and recognizing the woundedness of others. While being able to see the gift and beauty that can come from owning our wounds.
Understanding one’s woundedness can often make you more compassionate to other wounded creatures. Tending to our woundedness is a holy, venerable act. Tending to someone else’s wounds is also a beautiful thing. It’s a privilege to help guide another person towards a bit more wholeness. Doctors and nurses do that, but there are ways in which we can do that with how we choose to live, with how we use our words, with how we show up in every encounter, whether that be in meeting your boss or catching up with a friend. What if something in you thought, “I wonder how I could tend to making this person a bit more whole this afternoon?” What would that mean, or look like?
Every act of healing is reciprocal. Practicing soul care for someone else means practicing soul care for yourself. Any effort I make to show up to you with love is a gift unto myself as well. This can be exhausting and wrapped up with all of the things that come with being human. Sometimes you extend your hand or your heart to someone who doesn’t honor it or appreciate it, or who fights you for their healing. All of that is real.
And how, in your view, is this connected to storytelling and the arts?
In telling our stories, I think we can better hear what has really happened to us, which gives us space to reflect on how we live. The stories we share with one another reflect the narratives we’ve chosen to believe, accept, and live with, narratives which may not be the ones that lead towards wholeness. Sometimes, you can’t hear your truth until you speak it out loud and claim it, or refute it for a better truth. Multiple truths can co-exist, but not all serve you equally.
I’ve always said the world runs on stories. Everything you hear is someone’s version of a story. You have to discern which stories enable you to see yourself more fully, and others more fully. You have to ask the question, “what stories do I share that show others more fully?” As a writer— and I say this as someone who is writing fiction right now as well—I’m not thinking of story as “make believe.” I think of story as a way of being. We are storied people. Telling our stories is how we open up space for other people to place themselves in the grander story. I don’t read a Marilynne Robinson novel because everything that happens in Gilead happened to me, but because in reading it, I can place myself in certain elements of the human story.
A primary seam of your work seems to be the relationship between stories and our personal or collective liberation. How stories can either dehumanize or rehumanize, can reduce or liberate. And how we internalize damaging or outdated stories.
Absolutely. Sometimes, we can feel as though we’re clashing with our own lives or resisting the lives that want to be lived through us. Perhaps we can’t put our finger on the reason for our spiritual, emotional, or mental distress. This can be linked to living with an outdated story that no longer suits us. Our bodies’ cells apparently change every seven years; we change too. You hear people say, I’m not the same person I was seven years ago. I’m not the same person you married 20 years ago. This means our ways of relating have to change. What outdated stories are we living with? How are these affecting our inability to walk forward together? Our stories change all the time.
You write the life-giving column, “The Art of Life,” for The Financial Times, where you weave together such interesting threads—art, identity, culture, belonging, justice, meaning. What is your vision for the column, and what do you hope it helps readers cultivate in their own lives?
I wouldn’t say that I have a grand plan for it. I look at my work like this: I want to remain faithful to what I feel led to speak or write about. My vision is to honor whatever I feel called to explore and shed light on and trust that it will meet the audience it’s supposed to meet. And in some way I suspect I am always writing back to myself. I hope that whatever I write about invites people to reflect on their lives with more courage and intention, with more grace and strength.
Many of the topics I confront are to try to open up space to talk about things we may not have given ourselves permission to speak about publicly or were not trained to think about. Do we get to talk about lament? Is it okay to talk about loneliness? What does it mean to acknowledge the ways we might feel cowardly? Who talks about being a coward? I think a lot of the topics I write about, as I stated at the beginning of this conversation, try to connect things that we might assume we already understand.
Your work has such a broad appeal. As someone who also studied religion, I can see the links you describe, and how those links are rooted in theology and contemplative virtues. Your writing breathes life into our ways of understanding ourselves, community, and culture in secular spaces.
I want to invite people to pay more attention to how they move through the world. I’m not trying to be pedantic or instructive in any way. I’m simply sharing my experiences on the things that matter to me, which I think might matter to others because we’re all human. You have to meet people where they’re willing to be met. I’m not in the business of changing hearts. That’s not my job. I’m in the business of telling you what I’ve seen and what I’ve heard, and how what I’ve seen and what I’ve heard deeply affects my heart. That is all I can do. That’s all I want to do. I feel so grateful that sometimes I’m given the space to tell others what I’ve seen and what I’ve heard. What I’m still chewing on. What I’m still contemplating. What I’m being given to contemplate. And how being human is a beautiful and treacherous thing. Frederick Buechner says, “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Do not be afraid.”
Buechner’s words are resonant and powerful, especially in this tumultuous time.
In biblical narratives, when an angel shows up, one of the first things he says is, “Do not be afraid.” I’m so awed by that. When I imagine an angel, a spiritual entity, I imagine it is a beautiful thing to behold, and a terrifying thing to behold. There’s something about beauty and terror which go hand-in-hand. It’s such a compassionate thing for the angel to first tell you, “This is me, a beacon of God. But wait, don’t be afraid.” It shows the news bearer can be trusted.
This life which we’re gifted, born into, is both beautiful and terrifying. All of it is sacred, even the muddy parts, even the messes, even the illnesses, even the death. The sacred part comes in how we show up for each other, how we deal with cowardice, how we tend to the sick, how we honor death. Fear is real and natural, a protective instinct. We are often justified in being afraid, because there are many reasons to be afraid, but I don’t believe fear is supposed to win out. I think the angels say, “do not be afraid,” because there’s something bigger.
Reluctant Pilgrim resonated so deeply with my experience of church and spiritual community. I wonder where these questions find you now, more than a decade later and following a global pandemic. How does spiritual community call to you?
In some ways, I’m such a different person now. I wrote that book fourteen years ago, a loooong time ago. I still have a very active and engaged relationship with God, but a community of people, “the body,” doesn’t necessarily show up for me in churches in the same way it did in the past. Today, it shows up in relationships with people I trust and who I know will challenge me but also show up for me. It shows up in friendships, in the friends I pray with.
“Community” is a word I’m still trying to figure out. I’m not convinced that all groups who claim that word are actually places which know how to create space for difference, in thought, in physicality, in theology. How many ways are there to be in community? Is there a checklist for community or not? These days I return to spaces that feel safe, and I try in my best ways to be a safe space for others.
Do you feel a sense of community through your writing?
I get email responses to my writing regularly, and I try to answer them, even if I can’t reply until three weeks later. Readers are so intentional about describing how the work affects them, and in a way, I see community in that. Even though I don’t have a personal relationship with each of my readers, there’s a way in which my work creates a community beyond me. I think, in a sense, there is a community of us dispersed throughout the globe, even though we may not all meet or talk.
It’s like looking at a map. Every time someone reads something and it affects them in some way a place on the map lights up. A light goes up in Australia. A light goes up in Scotland. A light goes up in England. They may not see each other’s lights, but, somehow, space in their hearts has been opened. The community comes with the collectivity of that. If that is happening in all these places, soon the globe will be lit up.
As you mentioned earlier, we are “storied people.”
I’m reminded of the difference between vocation and profession. I believe a vocation is what you’re called to, and it can play out in different ways during different seasons of your life. But you don’t “do” your vocation by yourself. You are equipped by the primary source and by the amazing people in your life who help you live into it. You just say “yes” to it.
I also think we can go through seasons of smaller or bigger, or existent or non-existent, communities. I think of Moses spending all those years in the wilderness, after running away from his role as the adopted son in Egypt. Then, God shows up in the bush and says, “Are you ready? Time to go back out there.” Trusting the seasons is a part of honoring life. I trust God is with me as I walk the path and that the seasons of shedding are also seasons of shaping. The wilderness journey isn’t just about getting from Egypt to Canaan. It’s also about what happens in the wilderness itself.
My sense of community ebbs and flows. There are times when I feel deeply rooted in community. There are others when I feel less so, which can be painful. But I also trust, “God, you know what you’re doing.” My prayers are shaped differently in each season. Sometimes, we have to remember that we’re in completely new territory, and we can leave some of those old hurts, and maybe even some limiting beliefs, behind.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. It first appeared in Clerestory Magazine’s printed volume on contemplation.
Sarah James is the editor-in-chief and founder of Clerestory Magazine. A graduate of Yale and Middlebury, Sarah is a biracial South Indian-American woman of color and a writer. You can find her work elsewhere in The Porch, Darling, and Relevant, among others, or on her website.Discover more from Sarah James.