Full text – Oprah Winfrey delivers 2015 Harry’s Last Lecture on a Meaningful Life at Stanford University
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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.
And so I had a lot of great teachers, as we all do. I mean, old boyfriends are some of the best teachers. Woo, boy I got a doctorate degree from one. I’ll tell you about that later.
But I was doing an Oprah Show about a decade ago. One of my greatest teachers was a man named John Diaz. We were doing a show called “Would You Survive”? And on Tuesday October 31, in 2000, Singapore Airlines flight 006, a Boeing 747 from Taipei to Los Angeles took off with 179 souls aboard. Four crew and 79 passengers perished in that flight, a total of 83 fatalities. There was a Typhoon rolling through at the time, and the plane went down the wrong runway.
Now what’s interesting, John Diaz was on that plane, and he had had several, several, several indications – which I’ll talk about later — whispers that he shouldn’t have gotten on the plane, but he did anyway. He got on the plane and he managed to be one of the survivors.
And on the Oprah Show I was asking him, do you think it was — what do you think it was that you were one of the survivors? And I said, do you think it was your position on the plane? Because he was in first class and he was sitting on the right next to an exit door. He said, yes, I think it might have been the position of the plane, and also my quick thinking, he says. And the fact that I didn’t stop moving.
So I said, you don’t believe? You’re not a religious man? You don’t believe that there was some kind of divine intervention going on there? He goes, no, I’m not a religious person. I do not believe that it was anything divine. I don’t believe that. I did see, he said, as I got knocked back into the plane, that it looked like Dante’s Inferno with people strapped into their seats and just burning. And it seemed a bit to me, as I turned and looked backwards, like there was a light coming out of the tops of their heads. I guess you could call it an aura was leaving their bodies. And some lights were brighter than others. It changed, he said, it changed me. It gave me a new kind of spirituality, in a sense, that I now believe somehow, I don’t know how, but life continues on somehow through that light. And I thought, you know, I’m not a religious man, but I thought the brightness and dimness of the auras are how one lives one’s life, so to speak. So that’s one of the major things that really has changed with me since then, he says. I want to live my life so my aura, when it leaves, is one of the brightest ones.
I got chills when he said that. So much so, nothing to do but go to commercial. We’ll be right back.
What do you say after that? I want to live my life so when my aura leaves it’s very bright. That’s one of those moments that happens and you know that it’s bigger than a show about survivors. Because I always knew that when I am moved, at least a million other people might be too. Because if I can feel it and there are 20 million people watching around the world, it means that somebody else also felt and heard the same thing. That’s what connection is.
So I thought a lot about that, and thought about it obviously in thinking about and preparing to talk to you all today. About how does one lead a meaningful life? Because ultimately, isn’t that what we all want? We want to lead a life so that however we transition people can say, wow, that was a bright one, that was a bright light.
First of all, I think that it comes from a deep sense of awareness about who you are and why you’re here. It comes from being in touch with, on a regular basis, the appreciation and the holy gratitude that should fill each of our hearts on a regular basis, just knowing what a privilege it is to be here and to be human.
Close your eyes for a moment, will you please? And breath with me. Just close your eyes. And if you will put your thumb to your middle finger and gather your other fingers around. And lets feel the vibration and pulse of your personal energy as you take three deep breaths with me. Inhale, and as you exhale just feel the vibration, energy, blood pulsating through your body, through you.
And another inhale. And another inhale. And keep your eyes closed. And let’s just think about this day, this day that you have been graced to breathe in and out thousands of times. This day, where many of those breaths were taken for granted, you just expected the next one to come. But the truth is, there’s no guarantee that the next one comes.
This day, how you started your day, what your thoughts were this morning. How you’ve carried yourself through this day, how you’ve been allowed to have encounters and experiences, some challenging, some more life enhancing that push you forward another day of being here on the planet Earth as a human being. Let’s just think about that. After all you’ve been through in this day alone and the many days in years past, how you got here to this prestigious, esteemed university, the choices you’ve made that have brought you to this day.
Open your heart and quietly, to yourself, say the only prayer that’s ever needed. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
You’re still here and you get another chance this day to do better and be better, another chance to become more of who you were created, and what you were created to fulfill. Thank you. Amen.
Open your eyes. That’s how it starts. That is the foundation for meaning and purpose in your life is to bring yourself back to your breath. In all situations, in all ways, in all challenges, to know that the value of just still being here matters. It’s really big that you’re here. It’s really big, because everybody here has been called from the ethers to do the will, to fulfill the highest expression of yourself as a human being, and to do that in truth.
How do you do that? Well, I think you let every step you take move you in the direction of the one thing all religions can agree on, and that is love. In all the conversations I’ve had with so many people over the years who run the gamut of all kinds of emotions and emotional dysfunctions, I’ve come to understand that what Marianne Williamson said is true. There’s really only two emotions that count, and that’s love and that’s fear. And in all of your movements through life you’re either moving in the direction of one or the other.
In order to have a meaningful life you have to choose love. And not the schmaltzy, daltzy kind of love, but the kind of love that really counts, the kind of love that when everything else is going wrong and nobody even knows you’re choosing it you choose love. The kind of love that says I’m here for you, no matter what, you choose love. The kind of love that means you make the right decision, even when you know the other person is wrong. You choose love, because love is not just – it’s a verb, and it’s everything that represent kindness, and grace, and harmony, and cooperation, and reverence for life.
So when you choose — when you’re in a situation where you are mad, you are mad, and you know they are wrong, if you can go to that space of the breath, in God I move and breathe and have my being, and make the choice just to move a little closer in the direction of that which is going to bring you grace, that which is going to honor yourself, and by honoring yourself you can’t help but honor the other person. I’ve learned to choose love over fear, to choose love and peace rather than choosing to be right. That was a big lesson for me.
Do you want peace, do you want love, or do you want to be right? For a little while I was like, I’d rather be right. Rather be right with a little bit of love. I am a Christian, I grew up Christian, raised in the church all day long on Sundays. Sunday school in the morning, church in the afternoon, Bible school at night, prayer service Wednesday night, choir practice. I grew up in the church.
I would say I don’t go to church as much anymore. My church is nature from me. My church is my life. I experience church in every encounter with every person I try to have church. And I try to live my life from the tenet of the law, the third law of motion in physics. If I had only one wise offering for you it would be this one. The third law of motion and all the laws of the universe actually, are, in my mind, divine laws. And my favorite is the third law, which says for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. There are lots of different religions and philosophies that call this other things. In this country sometimes we call it the golden rule.
What I know for sure is, it doesn’t matter what you do unto others, it’s already done unto you. So anybody who’s seen the movie The Color Purple, there’s a line in there when Ms. Celie leaves and she says to Mr., everything you’ve done to me — and she holds her two fingers — already done to you. That’s the third law of motion. Newton didn’t know that Celie was going to articulate it that way, but everything you done to me, already done to you. So that is the tenet that rules my entire life.
And before the third law of motion, which says every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction, before there’s even the thought or the action there is the intention for the thought. And if there’s one force field that rules and dominates the meaning of life for me, it is living my life with a pure sense of intention.
Now this came to me because I used to be one of those people who had the disease to please. I said yes many times when I knew I should’ve been saying no, and then I would be mad at myself for saying yes. Anybody ever done that? You say yes, then you mad when they come back again. Because when you say yes when you really mean no, people follow the intention of the yes. Because why do you say yes? You say yes because you don’t want the person to be upset with you. They’re not. You don’t want the person to be angry, you want the person to think you’re nice. They do. And that is why they keep coming back. I couldn’t understand it. I just gave you some money, and now you are back. Oh, that’s because I didn’t really state the truth and so now you think me giving you the money meant I wanted to give you the money and that’s why you’re back asking me for some more.
So I tested this principle of intention when I first came to discover it in Gary Zukav’s book Seat of the Soul. I say, I’m going to see if that intention thing will work for this disease to please, because people are always bothering me. So this is what I learned through intention, nothing is showing up in your life that you didn’t order there. If it’s there, it’s there because you needed to see it. So I have a big life, and things show up for me in big ways. So one day Stevie Wonder calls me. I’m not name dropping, it’s true, he called me. No brag, just fact.
It was Stevie, and he didn’t call to say he loved me either, he was calling because he wanted something, but that’s okay. And I, at the time, this was early on. Because when I first started making money and it was my salary or my earnings were published all over the place. I mean the first year I was like, really? Did I make that much money? Oh, my god. It was very difficult for me to figure out where my boundaries were, because I’d grown up poor and didn’t have anything. So it’s easy when you don’t have anything and people ask you for money. And they say I need $500, and you say, I don’t have it, because I’m just trying to get my rent paid.
It’s harder when your multi-billion dollar salary is now in the paper, and you get a lot of friends and cousins you didn’t have before.
So how do you set boundaries for yourself? I was having trouble setting boundaries for myself for even strangers. People would show up at my door in Chicago and say, Oprah, I left my husband, please help me. And I would, because she knows I have it. So, don’t try that now though, okay. Don’t try that now, I figured it out!
So what I learned is that oh, the reason why people keep showing up is because my intention is to make them think that I’m such a nice person that you can ask me for anything. You can get me to do anything. I’m going to say yes, I’m going to say yes. So when Stevie called me this time I thought I’d try out my first no on Stevie. Let’s start big.
He wanted me to donate some money to a charity, and I didn’t want to donate to the charity, because I have my own charities and I care about a lot of people. But the problem is when you have money everybody thinks you just want to give to everything. So every letter I ever get starts with, we know you love the children. Yes, I do love the children, but somebody else is going to have to help the children.
So I said to Stevie, I said to Stevie no. And as a person who has that disease to please I was waiting for him then to say, I will never speak to you again. I will never call you. I will never sing a song for you. And he didn’t, he just said okay. Okay. He said, okay, check you later.
And what I learned from that is, many times you will have angst and worry about things and put yourself in a state, like someone said this morning because her phone went off they were mortified. Over a phone, I said? Really? You will put yourself in a state when the other person really isn’t even thinking about you. So learning that I could specifically determine for myself what the boundaries were for me, what I wanted to do, give my money, give my time, give of my service, to who I wanted to give it to when I did, that I get to make that decision. And just because you get 100 requests a week doesn’t mean you have to try to fulfill all of that. Just because you have all of these demands on your time and on you doesn’t mean that you have to say yes. You get to decide, because you’re the master of your fate, the captain of your soul, as William Ernest Henley said in Invictus. And understanding that really changed the meaning of my life in that I was no longer driven by what other people wanted me to do, but took charge of my own destiny, making choices based upon what do I feel is the next right move for me.
So being able to go continuously to that space, that I called the power station of God, universal energy, the divine flow. Being able to tap into the space where you and all of life and me and all of you in this room, all beings, all things are connected. We had a meditation this morning where we talked about entering that space. That space is real. You cannot, in my opinion, have a meaningful life without a life of self reflection, of spiritual and moral inquiry, and knowing who you are and why you are truly here, spiritual self reflection, to understand who you are and why you are here.
And when you understand the depths of that and you allow yourself to tap into the space of that which is the force, the universal energy, the divine flow, and you do that with a sense of authenticity that only you can, that only your energy can bring, you become untouchable in whatever it is you choose to do.
So one of the reasons I believe that I’ve been able to be so successful is because during the years where we had fierce competition from other shows and other people I would always say to my producers, you can’t run their race, you can only run yours. And you really can only run what you’re doing. You can’t even worry about your own fellow producers, you can only run your own race. That lesson that Glinda the Good Witch gives to the Wicked Witch of the West when she says, go away, you have no power here, that’s a powerful lesson. Because I have seen over the years in so many interviews and even in my real life experiences, people losing their power because you’re giving your power to other people. You lose your power when you try to take control of somebody else’s energy, because you have no power in any energy field other than that which is your own.
And your real job in life is to figure out how do you master your field. How do you do that? By consistently choosing love, by living in the space of gratitude, and knowing that that power that you feel from time to time comes from a source that is greater than yourself. Because nobody gets out of here alone, nobody. Nobody is making it alone. And when you are trusting when you are afraid, when you are sad, when you are unable to make a decision, when you are challenged, when you are moving in the direction of all that which is fearful, it’s because you’re trusting in your own power.
I couldn’t get here by my little baby ego self. When you look at where I’ve come from, a little town, apartheid town in Kosciusko, Mississippi in 1957 where there were more lynchings of black man per capita than any place else in the world, where you had to be off the streets, literally, when white people walked down the streets. Where there was no vision or hope for you as a black man or black woman, other than being a domestic or teaching in the colored school. And my ability to step into literally the flow and grace that I called God is what has gotten me here.
And I consistently mine that, because having a spiritual life isn’t something that you can attain because you already are a spiritual life. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, “we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” I know this to be true. So it’s not like you can go out seeking a spiritual life, you already are one. And the real job is for you to become aware of the soul’s calling and the spirit that resides in, above, around, and through you, and be about the business of fulfilling that.
There is no one else in creation like you. There’s nobody like you. And what you’ve come to do and what you have to offer is like no other, even if they’re all doing the same thing. I met a bunch of people today majoring in human biology. I go, woo, a lot of human biologists coming out of Stanford. A lot of great ones. And although everybody’s in the same class doing very similar things, no one brings the level of uniqueness and authenticity that you can bring. Nobody does it like you.
And understanding that what you have to offer, what you’ve come to give to the planet is your gift, your offering in a way that nobody else can and how much that matters. It matters to you, it matters to the people that you love, and it matters to our planet that you are here. It’s just, you know, it’s a miracle. It’s a miracle that we get to be here. And when I think of my life and the fact that nobody really kind of wanted me in the beginning.
My father had sex with my mother one time. Can you imagine? That’s a powerful seed. Woo, honey child. But one time, one time. And he wasn’t in love with her. He said she was wearing a poodle skirt and he wanted to know what was up under there, and she showed him by an oak tree. Now I got a yard full of oaks, I know that’s where it all started.
And to think that something as random as my mother’s poodle skirt and my father walking out the door at the time. She’d had her eye on him for a while, so she was working it. To think that something as random as that would create a little Negro child in Mississippi who grew up and had, and has had, and continues to have the opportunities that I’ve had. I can assure that is nothing but grace. It’s grace.
It’s grace because I was allowed to step into the flow of it and let it carry me to this moment. And I’m not telling you what to believe or who to believe or what to call it, but there is no full life, no fulfilled, meaningful, sustainably joyful life without a connection to the spirit. I haven’t seen it happen.
And the way for sustainability is through practice. You must have a spiritual practice. What is yours? Well, for some people it is going to church, that’s where they nurture themselves. I believe that creativity, artful expression, prayer, conscious kindness, empathy, consistent compassion, gratitude, all spiritual practices in the way of becoming more of who you are. So I started a gratitude journal, I mean, I was journaling since actually I was standing here in 1970. I actually have in my journal about visiting Stanford and what it meant to come here as an orator.
And for years all of my journals were filled with he don’t love me, I can’t believe she did that to me, and this is what happened today. And about the late ’80s someone introduced the idea of a gratitude journal to me. Gratitude journaling has become a spiritual practice that leads to an enhanced, a more enhanced and meaningful life, and you can start it today. And you can, I guarantee, if you did it for a week you would see a difference.
Because every day, and I’ll do it when I go home, five things I write down that I am grateful for or that brought me joy or opened my heart space. And by practicing gratitude, what you realize is, is that you wake up in the morning thinking about, what are those five things going to be? Because some days there’s only three. And then you have to take a breath, inhale, that’s one, exhale, that’s two.
Okay. I made my five, that’s all I got today.
So practicing gratitude in a way that allows you to take stock of your life, that’s why it’s a spiritual practice, because you’re now taking stock of your life. You’re assessing where you are spiritually. And in order to maintain a sense of growing yourself forward it requires also being in a place of knowing that after you’ve done all then you can — there’s a wonderful song by Donnie McClurkin, it says, you just stand. There comes a time in everybody’s life when you’ve actually done all that you can do and you really want something so badly but it still isn’t coming forward for you in a way that you feel that it should. I know that what is for you will come to you. I know that for sure. And I know that many times, when it appears that something is happening to you, it is always, always happening for you to strengthen you. Because my definition of power is strength over time– strength, times strength, times strength, times strength.
So I’ll leave you with my favorite story. I said this today about The Color Purple. It’s one of my favorite stories because it changed the meaning of my life and changed the trajectory of my life.
First of all, when I was doing The Color Purple I had just come to Chicago and started a show called A.M. Chicago. And I had asked my bosses for the time off, and I needed two months to do The Color Purple. And they said to me, you don’t have two months, your contract says you only get two weeks a year. So in order for us to give you the time off, you’re going to have to give up your remaining time on your contract to do The Color Purple.
I wanted to do it so badly that I said, all right, I’ll give up the next five years of my contract in order to do it.
What happened was after The Color Purple, after I filmed The Color Purple and The Oprah Show was so successful, becoming so successful — it was actually still called A.M. Chicago — the bosses at my channel wanted to renegotiate the contract. And my lawyer at the time said, remember The Color Purple. You never want to be in a position where something is that important to you to do, and you can’t do it because the boss says you can’t. You want to be able to own yourself and make your own decisions about what’s important to you to do, and that was something that was really important to you.
So the fact that I had not been allowed the time for The Color Purple is the reason why I made the decision to take the risk to own my own show. And that has made all the difference in the trajectory of my career. But let me try to shorten this Color Purple story because it changed the trajectory of my life.
I wanted to be in The Color Purple more than anything I’ve ever wanted in my life. I read the book on a Sunday. I got up, went back to the bookstore, went back to the bookstore and got every other copy of the book. I passed it out to everybody I knew. I was clearly obsessed about The Color Purple. People see me coming go, here she comes, talking about The Color Purple. Here she come again. I literally would walk around with it in a backpack. I see all these backpacks, y’all are loaded down here. I would walk around with it in a backpack in case I ran into somebody who hadn’t read it.
And I’d say, oh, you haven’t read it? I have one right here. And as life would have it, because you’re always drawing things to you, you’re drawing energy to you. Out of nowhere, supposedly, coincidence, no such thing. But I get a call from a casting agent saying that they’re casting for this movie called The Color Purple, this movie called Moon Song. And I said, are you sure it’s not The Color Purple? And he said, no, it’s called Moon Song. Because at the time, Steven Spielberg didn’t want anybody to know he was shooting The Color Purple.
So I go and audition for the movie. I can’t believe that God has allowed this to happen, because I am auditioning with a character named Harpo. Do y’all know Harpo is Oprah spelled backwards? I think that is a direct sign from Jesus. But not only am I now auditioning, I’m auditioning with somebody named Harpo, amazing.
When all I’d really asked God, I’d said, God please, help me get in this movie. Help me get in this movie. I don’t know anybody in the movies. I’m in Chicago doing a show called A.M. Chicago. I thought I could be script girl, best girl, best boy, whatever, the last credit on the movie.
Bottom line is, a long time passed, I call up the agent and the agent said, you don’t call us, we call you, and I didn’t call you. I hung up the phone. I was so upset I decided to go to a fat farm, and I’m going to lose the weight. That’s what they called them the time. I’m going to the fat farm. I’m going to starve myself because now all the weight is caught up with me. I know they hate me because I’m fat, I said. I’m going to go and I’m going to lose weight, and I’m going to try to release this obsession that I have with The Color Purple. I’m going to try to let that go.
Because now much time has passed. And I am on the track, running around the track, and I can hear my thighs rubbing together. And I start crying, because oh, gosh, now my thighs are rubbing together and it’s raining and my hair is getting wet.
So I started to pray. And I started, I’m praying and I’m crying. And I’m asking God, actually God, please help me let this go. I’m obsessed, I want it. Reuben Cannon had told me that real actresses had auditioned for that part and then I wasn’t a real actress, and that Alfre Woodard had just left his office. So I thought for sure Alfre Woodard’s going to get that part. And I’m running around the track praying and crying. And the way prayer works is, you can pray, but if you don’t release it, if you don’t surrender it, it goes nowhere, it’s just you talking to yourself.
So I started singing this song. Do you know this song? I surrender all, I surrender all. All to thee my blessed savior, I surrender all.
I sang and I prayed and I cried until I could release the pain, the suffering of the rejection that Reuben Cannon had caused me by telling me that I don’t call you. And then I realized, oh, I’m still carrying it around so I won’t be able to go to see the movie so I’m going to now pray that I can bless Alfre Woodard in the movie.
Let me bless Alfre Woodard so I’ll be able to go see this movie. I start singing again, I surrender all. Please don’t let me have now a grudge against Alfre Woodard who took my movie. Let me have peace in my heart about that.
So I pray, I pray, I pray until I’m singing, I surrender all, a woman comes out and says to me that there’s a phone call for you.
And in that phone call I was told next day, show up in Steven Spielberg’s office, and if you lose a pound you could lose this part.
So I stopped at the Dairy Queen.
But the point of this story is surrender. And the point of the story is I thought I could just be a script girl, best girl, whatever. I was just happy to be anywhere in the film. The point of this story is God can dream, the universe can dream, your creation can dream, the flow of your life can dream, has a bigger plan and a bigger dream for you then you can ever even imagine for yourself.
When I finished The Color Purple Quincy Jones said to me baby, your future is so bright it burns my eyes. And I say the same thing to all of you. You Stanford students with this amazing gift to be at this institution and let your light so shine, your brilliance. Your future’s so bright it burns my eyes.
The glory that the universe, God has in store for you is unimaginable to you, you can’t even imagine it. You can’t even imagine it. If you will surrender that which is yourself in alignment with the greater self and allow yourself to become a part of the force of all.
Take your glory, it’s waiting for you, and run with it.