Oprah Winfrey speaks on a meaningful life at Harry’s Last Lecture

April 21, 2015, 11:31 p.m.

On Monday night, Oprah Winfrey spoke to an audience at Memorial Church packed with students, faculty members, staff and other campus guests about her thoughts on a meaningful life. “Harry’s Last Lecture on a Meaningful Life” is put on annually by the Rathbun Fund in partnership with the Office for Religious Life.

Oprah Winfrey speaks at the annual “Harry’s Last Lecture on a Meaningful Life” as the 2015 Rathbun Visiting Fellow (KRISTEN STIPANOV/The Stanford Daily).

The lecture was created in memory of late Stanford law professor Harry Rathbun, who delivered his distinguished “Last Lecture” every year from the 1930s through the 1950s. For the past six years, the Office for Religious Life has chosen a speaker to come to campus to talk to community members about various paths to building a meaningful life.

This year, Stanford students, staff and faculty obtained their tickets through a lottery system, while special guests, such as the Rathbun family, were invited free of charge. All Rathbun funded events are free.

For fifth-year graduate student in bioengineering Katelyn Cahill-Rowley, even though she entered the lottery for tickets “on a lark,” she was excited to hear Oprah speak.

“[Oprah’s] built her career on connecting people from all walks of life…and she seems very personable,” Cahill-Rowley said. “It’s a cool topic to hear her talk about since she does it so much.”

Several students expressed having known Winfrey as a TV personality and idol and were excited to see her in person.

“It feels like [with] her being on a show she isn’t a real person, so having her here is a really cool juxtaposition, and getting to see the real her will be exciting,” said Tiondra Pier ’18 before the event.

Before the lecture, students around campus were anticipating Winfrey’s visit. Some student leaders, including the senior class presidents, had the opportunity to have lunch with Winfrey, while others began lining up outside Memorial Church three and a half hours prior to the event.


Winfrey as a “spiritual teacher”

Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Harry Elam began the lecture, telling the audience that the “mission of the Office for Religious Life is to help students discover and reflect on issues of meaning and purpose during their time and potentially monumental growth [at Stanford].”

“In this day and age…it is all the more important to have time to reflect, the space to think, not only about yourselves, but about the great world around,” Elam said before introducing the dean for religious life and professor of religious studies, Jane Shaw.

Shaw also underscored the importance of connecting people in their journey to fulfillment.

“What we do in this space is explore together what it means to lead a meaningful life,” Shaw said.

Shaw then introduced Winfrey, complimenting the guest lecturer’s contributions to daytime media, film, magazines, education and various charitable causes.

Winfrey opened her talk with a story about the last time she had been in Memorial Church, as a junior in high school participating in an oratory conference in the 1970s.

“I believe in the sharing of stories,” she told the audience. “Life gets better when you share it.”

The bulk of her talk was composed of her musings on how to lead a meaningful life, and particularly the role of spirituality in her life.

“I grew up believing that I was, for sure, God’s child,” Winfrey said. “My vision, my perception, my understanding of what it means to be a universal citizen has grown.”

Winfrey explained that for her, spirituality often takes the form of finding a “powerspace” within herself.

“And that is the reason I have been able to manage fame, handle the success, grow in grace, grow in the wisdom that is in that space of God,” Winfrey said.

“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,” she added.

Winfrey described herself as a “spiritual teacher” and explained that part of that comes from the fact that every person who came onto her show in its 25-year run had something to say from which she herself could grow.

“Your number one job is to grow yourself and to be the best of yourself,” Winfrey said.


Emphasizing gratitude

One of the main ways Winfrey emphasized as a method to grow yourself was feeling thankful and not taking things for granted.

She recommended that people participate in “holy gratitude” and described her own gratitude journal.  She also explained the importance of recording that for which she is grateful rather than that which goes wrong in her life.

“It leads to an enhanced and more meaningful life,” she said. “I’ll do it when I go home – five things that I write down that I’m grateful for or brought me joy or opened my heart space. You’re now taking stock of your life; you’re assessing where you are now…Some days there’s only three things, and then you inhale – that’s one – and exhale – that’s two. And now I’ve made my five.”

For Winfrey, everything comes back to the breath and the value of “just still being here.” She led the audience in a brief meditation session and urged everyone to fulfill the best version of themselves by coming back to the basics by concentrating on the simple act of breath.


Deciding between love and fear

Winfrey also connected self-reflection and emotion to our interactions with others. She believes that the only two types of emotions and actions are love and fear, and everything stems from one of the two.

“In order to have a meaningful life, you have to choose love,” Winfrey said. “Choose love and peace rather than choosing to be right.”

Winfrey also shared her twist on both Newton’s laws of mechanics and the classic Golden Rule.

“Third law of motion…every action has an equal and opposite reaction…It doesn’t matter what you do unto others, it’s already been done to you,” she said.

In addition to joking about Newton, Winfrey shared favorite quotes that have moved her from movies such as “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Color Purple,” as well as personal stories from her own life like learning to say “no” and not having the “disease to please.” She also spoke about “living life with a pure sense of intention.”

“I could determine for myself what the boundaries were,” Winfrey said.

“You get to decide because you are the master of yourself…You are no longer driven by what other people want,” she added.


Individuals’ empowerment

Winfrey concluded the talk with a strong emphasis on empowerment as individuals.

“Understanding that what you have to offer is your gift,” Winfrey said. “It matters to you, to the people that you love and to our planet that you are here.”

She also expressed that while there is no right way to have spiritual practice, in her opinion, a sustainable, joyful life is impossible without a connection to some sort of spirituality.

“For some people, it’s going to church,” Winfrey said. “I believe that creativity, artful expression, prayer, conscious kindness, empathy, consistent compassion [and] gratitude are all spiritual practices in the way of becoming who you really are.”

Winfrey concluded her lecture by sharing something that Quincy Jones told her after the pair finished working on “The Color Purple.”

“Your future is so bright it burns my eyes,” she said. “You can’t even imagine it.”


Contact Josee Smith at jsmith11 ‘at’ stanford.edu and Ada Throckmorton at adastat ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

A previous version of this article stated that some tickets were purchased by audience members, when in fact all tickets were free of charge. The Daily regrets this error. 

Josee Smith is a senior this year, majoring in anthropology with a minor in Spanish. She is the desk editor for the student groups beat and has spent her last 3 years at The Daily as both a staff writer and contributing writer. Originally from Washington State, Josee came to California for the warm weather and stayed for the awesome reporting. To contact her, please email jsmith11 'a' stanford.edu.

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