Garry Trudeau of Doonesbury finds the meaning of life in cartoons and curiosity

garry trudeau

It’s a tall order— probably futile, possibly absurd— to have to give a lecture on “A Meaningful Life.” Yet each year, in honor of the late Professor Harry Rathbun, Stanford’s Office for Religious Life selects a visiting lecturer to speak on exactly that topic, invariably selling out Memorial Auditorium with people looking for wisdom. This year, the Office chose Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau to deliver this annual “Harry’s Last Lecture on a Meaningful Life.” As the fifth person selected to be Rathbun Visiting Fellow, Trudeau’s esteemed forbearers include one of the most influential social activists of all time, the 14th Dalai Lama, a former Secretary of State, and the first woman to serve as a Supreme Court justice. Standing at the podium in Memorial Auditorium as a cartoonist, Trudeau began his lecture by asking rhetorically, “Which of these things doesn’t belong?”

The Rev. Scotty McLennan, who was roommates with Trudeau at Yale, introduced him with a similarly self-deprecating tone. He joked that he told University officials, “Good news! I’ve asked my college roommate to explain the meaning of life.”

As true as those observations may be, Trudeau is as qualified to give a lecture on how to pursue a meaningful life as any other mere mortal wrestling with the question. As the creator of the renowned comic strip Doonesbury, Trudeau has successfully captured the pulse of American politics and culture as it shifts through time and multiple generational shifts. Doonesbury, which has run in syndication for 43 years, manages the seemingly impossible task of telling the life stories of more than 70 well-developed characters while also providing biting, influential commentary on current events. For his unique combination of humor and insight on modern American culture, Trudeau has earned a Pulitzer, scorn and recognition from multiple American presidents and senators, and a permanent place in the American cultural canon.

That someone could have such a profound impact on culture and politics through the means of a syndicated comic strip seems at once surprising and mundane. Our gut reaction is to associate impact with overly serious positions, but really, who better seizes and generates culture than a newspaper cartoonist? His influence is subtly ubiquitous: for more than 40 years, Trudeau’s wit, take on the latest news story, and original characters have been an integral part of millions of Americans’ daily breakfast routines. He’s watched America change and respond to every major crisis and cultural landmark, and he’s helped shape much of those reactions with irreverent wisdom— all as a part of a career doing something he’s loved since grade school. His personal story and unique ability to comment on America’s own story make him arguably the ideal speaker for “Harry’s Last Lecture on a Meaningful Life.”

Of course, Trudeau began by undercutting the very notion that he knows any better than the rest of us how to live a meaningful life, noting that “any meaning in my life comes from very creative reverse engineering.” We like to look back at our decisions and the path we’ve taken and impose a sort of order, a logical progression onto it. We engage in “personal myth-making,” organizing our memories into a grander narrative for our life story. “We are our own worst biographers,” Trudeau observed. “The only thing that doesn’t change,” as we remember the same things differently through the years, “is our confidence that we’re remembering it correctly.”

Trudeau alternated between the more romantic observations on human nature that students came to see and the biting, ironic perspective that has made him so successful, consistently balancing humor and insightfulness. Remarking on his supposed bravery in pursuing cartooning as a career, he said, “One of the great things about youthful cluelessness is that it’s so frequently confused with courage.”

Throughout the lecture, Trudeau continually returned to the importance of stories, saying that we are a “narrative species” and noting that those who read a great deal of fiction, rather than being less socially competent, are better at interpersonal relationships because they “have more experience.” Stories also improve our sense of empathy— the importance of which Trudeau continually returned to. He spoke of how he was teased as a child for his diminutive stature, and that dealing with this forced him to develop a sense of empathy early on, a better eye for other people’s problems. “If you’ve never had the experience of feeling different— like there’s something wrong with you— then there’s something wrong with you,” he said.

Trudeau advised what he calls “purposeful seeing”— being better at noticing things off to the side and observing through the eyes of others. “This is the first step of making art,” he said. It’s not a question of “Can you draw?” but rather, “Can you see?”

This point is especially relevant to Stanford students, who have been relatively successful thus far in life based on our ability to accomplish tasks and follow directions. We can draw. But seeing— being able to examine life, ask questions, and empathize with other people’s experiences and points of view— is something we haven’t had to do to score well on a standardized test or get an internship. And it’s something that may never be scored in a measurable way. But it’s also critical to our ability to live a meaningful life.

“We work so hard at narrowing our focus,” Trudeau said. “If we look only at the horizon, what are we missing on the side of the road? We need to ditch the tunnel vision that seems necessary to success.”

That may strike some of us as alarming, especially at Stanford, where giving up that tunnel vision could mean falling behind— giving up the race, so to speak. But really, where are we racing to? And what will we do when we get there, if we haven’t learned the sort of vision, empathy, and general skills of good-humanness that one gains by looking around and appreciating things that don’t advance our one-track goal— the things “on the periphery,” as Trudeau called them.

This may well be the point— looking for meaning won’t help you find it. Talking about his great interest in the situation in Ukraine, he said, “I can’t tell you how it affects my life. It probably doesn’t. But it expands my sense of the world.

“I’ve always had an insatiable sense of curiosity,” he said. “And I think this leads to a rich life.”

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