As a person who has been a speaker at hundreds of events
around the globe, I’ve witnessed countless excellent lectures.
The most impactful, though, was the impromptu one a
professor of mine gave.
One particular day, in a religious studies class, my professor, an agnostic, shows us a documentary called Jesus Camp. It follows a group of evangelical Christians at their summer camp for kids. The subjects are not portrayed in a positive light.
Suddenly, a student in our class starts to rail against the Christians in the movie, and I peg my agnostic professor as a person who won’t mind. How wrong I am. It becomes a shouting match between her and the student. My professor vigorously defends the Christians in the documentary, saying we all gravitate toward things that give us a feeling of meaning and significance, belonging, and community.
Then she says,
She defies the agnostic box I placed her in. The frameworks that I am using to find meaning in the world are no longer sufficient. I am desperate for one that is. Slowly but surely, I realize I am outgrowing
I grew up in New Orleans with four sisters. We were an extremely atypical Christian family, and my parents deeply inculcated a strict religious philosophy. We didn’t observe Christian holidays, we observed Jewish holidays. Church was on Saturday instead of Sunday, and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were celebrated instead of Christmas and Easter.
From my mother, a homemaker, I absorbed a deep inquisitiveness about human beings. From my dad, a banker, I gained a reverence for the numinous and the transcendent. But I also came out of childhood dogmatic in certain ways.
I went to a performing arts high school then to the University of New Orleans, where I became an activist.
particularly in France and Europe, and I was like, What?
I thought this was a thing of the past? How is this possible?
I became passionate about trying to combat antisemitism. I started an Israel club, put together concerts, brought in speakers and musicians…and at some events, shouting matches would erupt with a lot of dehumanizing rhetoric. I wanted to solve this.
After college, I joined The Wall Street Journal as a Bartley Fellow.
I was tasked with developing a thesis; my personal question was,
are there all these frameworks that teach people how to combat conflict but not how to love?
My thesis became “how to get people to learn to love others they see
as different from them.”
I had an idea. Examine what people already love, and reverse
engineer a psychological framework from there. I thought about how people are
really in love with pop culture. I dug into researching beloved brands
like Nike, Apple, Disney, Beyonce, Justin Bieber, and Kendrick Lamar.
On vacation in Rome months later, I found myself staring up in awe at
a Bernini sculpture when the aha moment came to me.
I exclaimed to my friend,
Show people who they are and show them their potential, and they will love you.
I found this phenomenon intoxicating. Breathtaking. Spellbinding. Enchanting.
For the next two years, I gave lectures in America, Europe, and South Africa sharing ToE hundreds of times as a conflict resolution tool. I’ll always remember the first time I saw my audience’s eyes light up at a speech I gave at a university in Berlin.
Something else significant happened. Somewhere
along my way, I’d overcome my biggest obstacle.
There’s a great saying: You can grow out of your
religion, or you can grow your religion.
Recently I read a book, The Omni Americans, by Albert Murray, a brilliant jazz critic. In it,
he described the task of the artist, and he talked about an idea within African-American
culture, which he calls Impromptu Heroism, the capacity to play with whatever life
brings you – and in doing so, to become the stylizer, the organizer, or the being who brings
meaning to chaos. This resonated deeply with me. When I read it, I realized that’s
what I’ve long been doing with my life. And that, above all else, I am an artist.
After a year as a Bartley Fellow at The Wall Street Journal, Chloé Valdary developed the Theory of Enchantment (ToE), an innovative framework for compassionate anti-racism that combines social-emotional learning (SEL), character development,
and interpersonal growth as tools for leadership development in the boardroom and beyond.
Her work has been covered in Psychology Today, and her writings have appeared in the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. She’s lectured in universities across America, including Harvard and Georgetown. She continues her work with Theory of Enchantment to bring compassion to diversity inclusion training and fight bigotry with love.