A daily salve for a wounded culture

It’s over. But not really. Wednesday night was Oprah’s last show. Daytime TV will be different. The show closed so Oprah can devote time to her own network, the Oprah Winfrey Network, or OWN. It’s all hers. Daytime, night time, all the time. Oprah said goodbye, but she is not going anywhere.

I watched the two-part special tribute earlier this week. Of course, Aretha Franklin could have been singing the Wolfe Island phone directory and I would have watched that, too. For Oprah she sang Amazing Grace. An added bonus, Patti Labelle showed up to teach Josh Groban a thing or two about performing.

The farewell was billed as a “surprise spectacular” as Oprah allegedly did not know what to expect. Imagine how shocked she must have been to discover that the fabulous celebrities she gushes over showed up to gush over Oprah and to remind her of how fabulous they are. Tom Hanks told Oprah that she was “surrounded by nothing but love.” Some of the fabulous people found mere love to be insufficient: “Oprah, we thank you, we adore you!” Madonna offered a prayer seemingly to Oprah herself, ending her supplication with an emphatic “Amen!”

It’s easy to mock the Oprah formula, which reduces middle-class women to a frenzied state at the (surprise!) announcement that people worth of hundreds of millions have given a few hundred thousand to a worthy cause. Diane Sawyer showed up to announce that 25,000 oak trees would be planted for reasons unclear. It doesn’t matter. The point is not so much the cause but the extravagance. Some super-rich people like to ostentatiously display their wealth. What’s not to celebrate?

And it’s easy to mock Oprah herself, but her achievement should not be dismissed. About 10 years into her run she decided that she would dedicate her program to self-esteem and self-improvement, turning her back on the updated carnival freak show that daytime TV was then, and still largely remains. Oprah led the parade of the destructive and dysfunctional better than her competition, but her decision to abandon that in favour of teaching women to “live their best life” was a signal moment. Millions of viewers who were getting fat of body and feeble of mind on the couch watching Oprah were subsequently exhorted to read books and stop overeating. To be commercially successful doing that in the land of the obese and the home of the banal is no small thing.

Literature and losing weight were only the beginning. For many of her viewers, Oprah became so much more. “Oprah was the only anchor I could hold onto in my sorrow,” said one mother, whose year-old baby died in her arms. “The Oprah show taught me the power of forgiveness,” said another woman whose mother was killed by drunk driver. “Oprah put the light back in my eyes,” confesses another viewer.

What lives are so spiritually barren and humanly bereft that people need to learn hope, grieving, forgiveness and joy from strangers on a television show? How empty of real humanity must life be if a woman on TV becomes a friend, confidant, sister, mother and – for some, this is no exaggeration – priestess, prophet and queen?

The sad answer is that such lives are legion. Our culture is filled with vast numbers who have lives so impoverished of reality that they need the Oprah show to manufacture it for them. It’s a failure of a culture, of communities, of churches, of families and friendships. To that atomized and lonely world, Oprah offered a word of hope and a moment of joy. And on occasion, even in the latter years, a misfit or two at which to gawk, proof that if even you weren’t living your best life, your life was at least better that today’s object of pity and scorn.

It shouldn’t be this way, but it is. One can lament that ersatz meaning sells when authentic meaning is lost, but Oprah was also a salve on a deeply wounded culture. To need Oprah to cope with the loss of a child is excruciatingly pathetic, but for the devastated mother who needs that, it is a mercy that Oprah was on TV.

“Because of you we learned that we are enough,” said Dakota Fanning. It’s not true, as every philosopher has always known. We are not enough. But for those who have nothing else, why not at least pretend each day?

Adore Oprah? No. But thank her? Yes.