With Oprah’s legendary talk-show career ending today, we should celebrate her unparalleled influence as a healer, visionary, entrepreneur, and philanthropist. Well, I would like to bestow upon Oprah a new distinction: Oprah the existentialist.
For many of you, the word existentialist conjures up a creepy concoction of Friedrich Nietzsche’s ramblings on God’s death, Martin Heidegger’s hermeneutics, Albert Camus’s absurdity, and Jean-Paul Sartre's insistence that existence precedes essence. Sigh!
Fair enough. Oprah is not an existentialist in the classic sense of the term. And yes, she does deviate from Nietzsche, Heidegger, Camus, and Sartre in ways too numerous to list. But Oprah also shares much in common with them, namely a career-long excavation down the deep and dark crevices of the human soul.
While many talk-show hosts fight after ratings with tantalizing topics like ”Your Road to Better Sex!” or ”How to Accessorize for a Night Out on the Town,“ Oprah has built an empire leading us through a daily purging of cynicism with her unbridled optimism.
IN PICTURES: Oprah through the years
Her celebrity guests, book club inductees, ”hookups,” and numerous selected themes help us tap into our limitless capacity for growth and change.
The breadth of Oprah's personal talent and the scope of her intellectual reach enlist us to ferret the deep-seated metaphor lurking at the surface of our core being. She helps us to conquer a clearer vision of our purpose and potential.
Oprah teaches us that the human project, our fear-driven, love-seeking undertaking, is always up for editing, elevation, and enlightenment. She shines a florescent radiance on our fragility. But she always harks back to that fact that no matter how low we go or how much we unravel, if we open our minds for discovery, then recovery and reclamation are always within reach.
ANOTHER VIEW: Why I won't miss Oprah after her last show
In short, what Oprah shares with the great existentialists is an indomitable pursuit of two fundamental questions: Who are we? What can we become? And she has shed light on the possibility for a far more hopeful, productive answer to these questions than our traditional existential heroes.
After two decades in daily pursuit of those two essential inquiries, perhaps Oprah wears the crown as The Greatest Existentialist of all.
Shayne Lee has a PhD in sociology from Northwestern University and is an associate professor of Sociology at the University of Houston. His most recent book is “Erotic Revolutionaries.” Mr. Lee has appeared on Fox, CNN, and Good Morning America, and has offered expert commentary in CNN.com, The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, and various other periodicals.