Transcript – Oprah Winfrey delivers 2015 Harry’s Last Lecture on a Meaningful Life at Stanford University
Harry Elam – Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Stanford
Thank you and good evening. I am Professor Harry Elam, the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Stanford.
And on behalf of the president and the provost, I welcome you to tonight’s very special Rathbun Lecture with our featured speaker, Ms. Oprah Winfrey.
Now, I got to tell you that you’re in for a special treat. She spoke to students this afternoon, and the generosity, the commitment, the concern she had in terms of the issues she spoke about touched all of us there and will touch you tonight.
The Harry and Amelia Rathbun Fund for Exploring What Leads to a Meaningful Life was made possible by an endowment established in 2006 by the Foundation for Global Community, which was directed by the Rathbuns’ son, Richard Rathbun.
“Harry’s Last Lecture,” as it’s affectionately been called, is the title tonight. And as someone named Harry, I think it’s a great name.
The Rathbun Fund supports the mission of the Office of Religious Life by helping students and others discover and reflect upon issues of meaning and purpose during their time of potentially monumental growth in character and spirit here at college.
In this day and age, when students are driven by the pace of technology and the pressures to achieve, the increasing concerns over employment after college, it is all the more important to have time to reflect, the space to think, not only about yourself but about the great world around you.
The Rathbun Fund has created both a timeless and timely opportunity to help Stanford deepen the student experience with a focus on thoughtful inquiry, the pursuit of ethical engagement, and a dedication to making the world a better place to live.
And now to tell you more about the Rathbun Lecture and to introduce tonight’s esteemed speaker, it is my pleasure to introduce the Dean of Religious Life, Dr. Jane Shaw.
Dr. Jane Shaw – Dean of Religious Life
Welcome to Memorial Church, this extraordinary sacred space that Jane Stanford put at the heart of our campus, and welcome to the 2015 Rathbun Lecture.
All that we do here in this space, in the circle, which is our interfaith space, and at Windhover, our recently opened contemplation center, is designed to explore together as a body, as a community what it means to lead a meaningful life. In our work as the office for religious life, we encourage members of this university to explore both spirituality and religion. We support the working out of ethical values and we host discussions, arts events, and of course, worship, all designed to help us think and practice a meaningful life.
The Harry and Amelia Rathbun Fund for exploring what leads to such a meaningful life generously supports much of our work. It was made possible by an endowment established in 2006 by the Foundation for Global Community. The centerpiece is this visiting fellow program, which brings notable, experienced, and wise people to campus each year.
It is our pleasure this evening to welcome and thank the board members and participants in the Foundation for Global Community, many of whom are here with us tonight and some may be watching at home. And in particular, we warmly welcome Harry and Amelia’s son, Richard Rathbun, his wife Lacey, and their two children, Ryan and Milo. We’re so delighted you could join us tonight.
And now, it is my very great pleasure, and of course, my privilege to introduce the Rathbun visiting fellow for 2015, Oprah Winfrey.
She has to have a little more of an introduction than that, because she has so many accomplishments. She is known to us as the talk show host who changed the very nature of interviewing on her show The Oprah Winfrey Show, which ran for 25 years. She is known to us as a brilliant actor, who especially starred in films such as The Color Purple and The Butler. She has Harpo Productions and produced the extraordinary film, Selma. She is the founder of O Magazine, which has 16 million readers throughout the world. She is an acclaimed author herself, with a passion for reading, who has, through her book club, encouraged so many others to discover the pleasure of imaginatively entering the worlds of others through books. She has won many awards for all her incredible work, including many Emmys and most recently the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She is an exceptionally generous philanthropist who has founded a girls’ school in South Africa.
Ms. Winfrey’s accomplishments are many, and she would say that they all emerged from her deep sense of spirit and her spiritual life. So she is with us tonight here to give the Rathbun Lecture as one of the great spiritual leaders of our time. She encourages millions to explore what it means to have a spiritual life. And that, she’s told us today, is her very, very favorite thing to do.
You can catch her having probing conversations with other spiritual leaders on Sunday mornings on her Super Soul Sunday television program. You can read her wisdom in her most recent book, What I Know for Sure. You can engage in deep learning in her life class as it goes on tour around the country.
But this evening, we are fortunate, we are blessed, and we are truly grateful that she will be speaking to us about what leads to a meaningful life.
Distinguished guests, students, faculty, staff, Ms. Oprah Winfrey.
Hi, y’all. Woo! Y’all just don’t even know what this means to me to be standing in this hall.
In 1970, before you were you even a thought in the mind of God or in the seed of your parents, I was in an oratorical contest as a junior at East High School. And the great victory for us as state champions was to have our national championship here at Stanford in this very church. And as I stand here today, I lost the contest, but I won the prize.
Wow, I know, I came in today and I went, oh my gosh, I made it.
Dean Shaw, that introduction moves me, because one of my goals as a human being has been to evolve to the point of being a student in the spiritual realm enough that I could be able to bestow some of my knowledge, the information I’ve gathered over the years from thousands of interviews in such a way that I could call myself a teacher. And I dared not call myself a teacher until hearing it from you, and because you have said I’m a teacher and you are here at Stanford, I believe you. I’m going to take that. So thank you.
It’s been an amazing day here with you all. First of all, I have one of my South African daughters, I have 20 girls in college in the United States and one of them, Shaddai is here at Stanford. And she’s a sophomore. And we came to Stanford I think late 2011 or early 2012, I can’t remember. And I remember landing on the campus with her and we didn’t know if she was going to get in yet. As we got into the car and we’re pulling away she said, Momma O, these are my people. And I can understand why.
Just being here in the presence of such energetic, stimulated brilliance makes us all want to be better. So I wish I could have gone to this school and I’m thrilled that I have one of my daughters who does go to this school. I love everything that happens here in the bubble. And I’m really excited, really excited to be a part of the Harry Rathbun Lecture Series, because I have spent hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and thousands hours talking to spiritual leaders and teachers, and not just spiritual leaders and teachers who have been deemed so, but thousands of people who came from levels of dysfunction, who came from levels of pain, who were suffering, who were challenged in their progression of trying to be the best human beings they could be. And they allowed themselves the opportunity to come on our show, The Oprah Winfrey Show and share their stories.
I am one who believes in the sharing of stories. I believe in the process of sharing, period, because I know that all life gets better when you share it. And those thousands of people who have been guests on the show and many of them who were also audience members have been my greatest teachers. And I would say that one of my gifts, and it’s everybody’s job to know what your gift is. So when I talk about my gift I’m not bragging, it’s just fact. It’s just a fact, it’s a gift. Hey, he, ha, yes.
One of my gifts that I’ve had since I was a little girl growing up in Mississippi, being raised on a tiny little acre farm with my grandmother, is that I knew how to pay attention. I was a great observer of life. And I grew up believing that I was, indeed, for sure, God’s child. It’s because every Sunday I sat in our little church down the road, a dirt road from where my grandmother lived, no running water, no electricity. I was saying this to my great niece who’s eight the other day and she said, it sounds like Little House on the Prairie. And I go, it kind of was.
No running water, no electricity, but the church is down the road from us, and we could hear the singing as I was getting dressed for Sunday school. And I’d always sit on the left hand side, the left pew in the second row. And I would listen to the preacher preach about the Lord, thy God is a loving God, and sometimes he would say the Lord thy God is a jealous God. But most important, I heard him say, you are God’s child and through God all things are possible. And I literally took him at his word, so that by the time I had to leave my grandmother because she became ill and I was sent to live in Milwaukee with my mother who had two other children, I got beat up on the playground because when people would ask me, who’s your daddy? I would say, Jesus is my daddy. Sometimes he’s my brother, and God is my father.
But what I now know and have learned that my view of God, although I call that God in a box and although my vision of God has expanded to be inclusive of all things. All, all, God is all, God is law, God is all, in all things, not just the guy sitting up with the beard.
And now that that view of God has expanded, I still understand how important it was for a little colored girl — we weren’t even black yet, not to mention African American — you know what I mean, Harry. A little colored girl in Mississippi for whom there was no vision of hope or possibility, my grandmother’s greatest desire for me as she had been a maid and her mother before her had been a maid, her greatest desire was that I would grow up one day and be able to do the same. And she wished for me that I would be able to. And she used to say, I hope you get some good white folks when you grow up. I hope you get good white folks who treat you good.
So my grandmother had no idea of the life that I now lead, with good white folks who are working for me. She just wouldn’t get it. She wouldn’t get it.
She wouldn’t get it, but somehow I think she must know. And she’s up around in the spirit realm saying, Lord, have mercy. I didn’t see it. But I now know that having that belief system, that something greater than me was in charge of my destiny, of my fate, that it wasn’t just me alone having to survive for myself is the thing, is the value, is the rock that has sustained me.
So my vision, my perception, my understanding of what it means to be a universal citizen has grown as I came to understand Acts 17:28, my favorite Bible verse that says, “in God I move and breathe and have my being.” So my every attempt in life has been, since I was a little girl, to be in that space that I call God, to literally live in the breath that is God. To live in the breath and allow the breath to breathe me as God. And that is the reason I see I have been able to manage fame, handle the success, grow in grace, grow in the wisdom and glory that is offered by that space that I know to be God, because in God I live and breathe, I move and breathe, and I have my being. In everything that I do and all that I am comes up and out from the center of that space, even when I didn’t know what to call it.
So I have paid attention to my life, because I understand that my life, just like your life, is always speaking to you, where you are, in the language, with the people, with the circumstances and experiences that you can understand and interpret if you are willing to see that always life, God is speaking to you.
Now it took me a while to actually really get this and to understand it, but once I did I started paying attention to everything. And one of the reasons why I can now accept the fact that I can offer my gatherings of information and wisdom and call myself a spiritual teacher, is that every single person who ever came on my show — and I hear there was like 37,000 guests I’ve talked to — a lot of them came from dysfunction and a lot of them wouldn’t appear to be teachers, but every one of them had something to say that was meaningful and valuable and that I could use to grow myself into the best of myself, which is what all of our jobs are. Your number one job is to become more of yourself and to grow yourself into the best of yourself.