On April 28, the Stanford Office for Religious Life hosted cartoonist Garry Trudeau as the fifth Rathbun Visiting Fellow as he delivered a “Harry’s Last Lecture on a Meaningful Life.”
Trudeau is the creator of the Pulitzer Prize-winning comic strip Doonesbury. Past Rathbun Fellows have included Sandra Day O’Connor ‘50 J.D. ‘52 and the Dalai Lama.
Trudeau spoke before a full crowd in Memorial Auditorium, using his comedic wit to speak about pivotal events in his life as well as his personal growth.
At just eight years of age, Trudeau recalled, he became enamored with the energy of theater and took it upon himself to pursue his dream.
“We rounded up the kids and we put them in plays,” he said. “Initially they were plays that I wrote, and eventually, I found out about Samuel French, a publisher of plays. I sent my plays to him because I wanted to do adult work. I didn’t want to do little kid work.”
Trudeau described his generation as disinclined to remain young and eager to reach the excitement of adulthood. However, Trudeau said he never set out with the intent of adhering strictly to a predefined plan, and recalled that he did not have expectations for what was and was not possible.
“I didn’t feel ready for the creative opportunities that came my way for one minute,” Trudeau said. “I didn’t feel that I could possibly have done those musicals as a younger man. I wrote for a column for the op-ed page of The New York Times, which was offered to me in my early forties. I wasn’t ready to do that kind of work, and I think it took me a while to think I could write a show like [Amazon political sitcom] Alpha House.”
Asked how he continues to live a life of undying passion with such self-confidence, Trudeau emphasized “endless curiosity.” Audience members were taken aback when he shared his creative process as an artist.
“There’s been a nice alignment of the opportunities and my capabilities, but I don’t look too hard at the creative process — like the way a mountaineer never looks down,” Trudeau said. “You think maybe that if you hold it up to too much scrutiny, it would somehow compromise the process.”
In addition to emphasizing his curiosity, Trudeau discussed the importance of being an observer in a meaningful life and focused on the quality of empathy. He confessed that the one thing he wished he had done more was to look less at the horizon and more at his surroundings.
More than anything else, Trudeau emphasized the importance of life in the present and the expression of care for those around you. Trudeau also explained his perspective on his own legacy.
“I think that’s really taking your eye off the ball to worry about legacy,” Trudeau said. “When I think of legacy, I think of boxes of things in my back room that my kids are going to sort through and throw out.”
Jerry Kuang ‘17 said Trudeau’s talk provided a refreshing contrast to previous talks he has attended at Stanford this year.
“The last one I came to was with John Hennessy and Mark Zuckerberg, and there’s such a humongous contrast,” Kuang said. “That was something so techie, so current, and so young and relevant, and this is something completely different, much more on the philosophical side.”
Audience members noted that Trudeau’s talk often took unpredictable turns and deviated from the original theme of a meaningful life.
“You’re expecting ‘this is what a meaningful life looks like,’ and it was interesting that he never explicitly answered that,” said audience member Christine Chen ‘17.
One of Trudeau’s tangents included a joke about a man who went in to see a general physician. When asked why he was visiting, the man said that he thought he was a moth. To this, the physician responded that he should go see a psychiatrist and asked why the man had visited to begin with. The man explained that he saw the light on.
Trudeau framed the anecdote as illustrative of a foundational concept for a meaningful life, arguing that each of us will have moments when we see those lights, and we’ll be immediately drawn to them. The key, he emphasized, is to not hold back.
Contact Angelique Dakkak at angeldak ‘at’ Stanford ‘dot’ edu.