I was channel surfing today and chanced upon a "surprise party" for Oprah Winfrey. Her show is winding down after twenty-five years. As the stage became filled with the famous and the never heard of, I sat and listened as they all thanked Oprah for everything she had done to help change their lives for the better. And I began to wonder at it all. Each commercial break was sponsored by large corporate giants falling over themselves to grab a piece of the pie, patting themselves on the back as they waxed rhapsodic over how they too had "partnered with Oprah" to help make the world a better place. Even tissues got into the act, showing how they'd put a specially packaged box of Kleenex under each seat in the enormous auditorium to help with the floods of tears from every set of eyeballs in the building. My own t-shirt collar was soaked by the time the show was over, so I understood the sentiment. Everyone was singing, dancing and smiling hugely, and again I wondered at it all.
My mind started tripping over the decades of stories about Oprah, the cruel and witty, sarcastic and admiring, fearful and envious, thankful and adoring. All over this one woman. One person. A girl from a dirt poor train wreck of a childhood who learned to grin in front of the camera, now a fabulously wealthy celebrity with the Midas touch. Many celebrities have come and gone; talk show hosts who gained a cult following and burned out quickly. What was it about this woman that touched so many? What is it about Oprah that inspires such reverence?
There are a lot of characters who are watched religiously. Some are good-hearted and witty, which endears them to us. There are the silly vapid ones, who spout silly catch phrases and make us chuckle. They have a fleeting spot in our hearts for their ability to amuse, even if it's blatantly involuntary. There are the desperate for attention ones, who think only their beauty, sexual appeal or shocking personalities have value. They show us their breasts and six pack abs, they do outrageous things so that we'll look and keep on looking. They're like candy. We watch them for just what they give us: sweet empty calories.
Oprah stepped into this world of commercials and fashion and the latest gossip, a cute African American woman with an infectious personality and maybe a few seasons of glitter before the audience moved on to fresh meat. I think that was the general opinion at first; here was something new, perhaps to show studio progression and nothing else. But this woman had something inside of her that she recognized. She knew that she could reach millions with this venue of talk show host. She had experienced pain, loss, abuse, addicts, massive insecurity and self loathing. Instead of allowing awful memories to keep her down, she bent them to her own will. Jacob and the Angel, wrestling until dawn. Her past had made her empathic even as it tried to pin her to the ground. She understood pain and suffering because she'd experienced it herself. She found the courage to share that pain with the world and the world nodded, teary-eyed. It understood her right back. Oprah became a symbol of how much one person can make a difference to the whole world. She showed us and will no doubt continue to show us how good it feels to help others. How important it all is to help every day, even if it's just a smile at a passing stranger. How, when kindness becomes big enough, everybody jumps on board, even corporate giants. Their bottom line reasoning is unimportant compared to the massive good they can do.
We insecurity addicts have a hard time volunteering for anything. It's not because we're assholes or uncaring, at least not usually. It's because we think we'll suck at it. As a teenager, I remember not volunteering, ever, to help our church in its own little Habitats for Humanity projects. I wanted to help desperately, but was terrified I'd nail something incorrectly and a roof would cave in on a family. Some baby in a crib would get squished because I hadn't placed a shingle properly. I actually had nightmares about it. That, and the terror of being seen as uncool because I was too stupid to know how to swing a hammer. So I did nothing. Fear and insecurity simply paralyzed me.
Oprah Winfrey swung that hammer with a vengeance. Through her openness, she has inspired millions, literally millions of people to look around, see what they can do, find the goodness inside themselves and the world around them. We all know what a harsh place the world is. We've all experienced tragedy and felt the sting of hopelessness, where cynicism and bitterness have washed our sight with sepia and slate grey. Oprah brought a little color into our weary cynical world, a color that expanded and expanded until it was a rainbow with a pot of gold at the end. I know she'll never stop painting her canvas of brilliant hues and golden optimism and I thank her, from the bottom of my heart, for turning her own dung heap of memory into such a magnificent garden. Good luck, Oprah Winfrey. Thank you for showing us that anything is possible. Even an open, giving heart.