Iranian general Qassim Suleimani had been killed in a drone strike carried out by the United States the second day of the year, and the national conversation at the beginning of 2020 echoed the same script I'd heard as a 14-year-old in 2003 during the leadup to the reckless Iraq War. Coupled with historic bushfires in Australia that have killed an estimated half-billion animals and are only the beginning of the unfolding climate catastrophe, the decade was off to a grim start.
It was difficult to avoid thoughts about these escalating tragedies as I walked through the doors of the BB&T Center around 9 this past Saturday morning for the first date of Oprah Winfrey's 2020 Vision: Your Life in Focus. Running through May, the wellness tour is headed to nine cities across the nation and is set to include visits from headlining celebrities such as Michelle Obama, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Jennifer Lopez.
Lady Gaga was the featured guest at the inaugural date, although the audience largely comprised Oprah disciples and just a few Little Monsters scattered throughout. Before the daylong wellness workshop began, Oprah's fans waited in lines for photos in front of tour posters and bought merchandise ranging from $12 pop sockets to $35 shirts that read, "I can. I will. Watch me." I would hear many more of these pithy affirmations as the day wore on.
From the moment Oprah hit the stage at 10 a.m., the arena took on an atmosphere akin to a megachurch. Fans clamored for the chance to speak to her or touch her as she walked through the aisles on the arena floor. Inspirational quotes lit up the Jumbotron on sepia-toned backgrounds and were accompanied by the sort of ambient music you'd hear in a spa waiting room.
"You gave up the first Saturday of your year... because you know you're worth it," Oprah said from the stage as she explained her aim for 2020 Vision: to start a wellness campaign that will continue in attendees' lives well after the tour is over.
But for as much as I hope to plan meals and exercise more in the coming year, my mind couldn't move away from my having the privilege of sitting in that room and focusing on internal struggles — such as mild anxiety and my failure to sign up for yoga classes — while the world burns. One woman in the audience posted Oprah's vague affirmations on her Instagram story throughout the day. "If someone in your life is not happy for your success, let them go," one post read. I couldn't help but think of the millions of people around the world who wished such banalities could be their biggest problems as they fled to the ocean to escape fires of biblical proportion.
After a mass silent meditation with Big Quiet founder Jesse Israel, an hourlong glorified Weight Watchers commercial, and a dance break with Julianne Hough, Lady Gaga joined Oprah onstage for a candid conversation about the pop star's experience grappling with sexual assault and mental illness. The singer discussed her struggles with self-harm, chronic pain, a recent psychotic breakdown, and the antipsychotics she takes to fend off such episodes. "If I took my pillbox out, it would sound like a baby rattle," she joked.
That kind of dark humor can only come from someone who has lived through unspeakable horrors and has self-healed using the methods that were touted at the daylong event. But Oprah and Gaga's access to these methods — which were acquired through fame and financial wealth — were only a brief topic of conversation. Innocent civilians who fear drones flying overhead don't have access to silent sound bowl meditation; American citizens facing crippling medical debt and lifelong poverty have much bigger problems than cutting so-called toxic people out of their lives. If there's any hope for a meaningful wellness moment in the decade ahead, conversations about the kind of anxiety and depression that the current state of the world breeds — and the people and conditions making it that way — will have to be much more honest and confrontational than quasi-Weight Watchers testimonials.