|Photograph by Sebastian Kim of GQ|
Have you seen the recent GQ article featuring Stephen Colbert? We had two readers send it our way, and for good reason, too.
It shows a side of Colbert most people probably don’t know exists. It speaks of deep joy being born out of incredible suffering and grief. It is a must read. I’ll share a few of my favorite parts below, but it’s worth seeing the whole thing to get additional context (the deep stuff starts in the last 1/3 of the article).
The author of the GQ article, Joel Lovell, notes the following about Colbert:
He used to have a note taped to his computer that read, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the existence of God.”
It’s hard to imagine any comedian meditating every day on so sincere a message. It’s even harder when you know his life story, which bears mentioning here—that he is the youngest of eleven kids and that his father and two of his brothers, Peter and Paul, the two closest to him in age, were killed in a plane crash when he was 10. His elder siblings were all off to school or on with their lives by then, and so it was just him and his mother at home together for years.
Naturally Colbert says the difficulty of that tragedy shaped him for years, but not always in the most positive way. He went into theatre in college and found himself drawn to works that allowed him to share his pain with everyone through the art.
But then he learned about improv comedy, he was given a sage bit of advice on the first night onstage that would change his perspective: “You have to learn to love the bomb.”
Colbert had this to add about the phrase that would so deeply impact his life:
“It took me a long time to really understand what that meant,” Colbert said. “It wasn’t ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get it next time.’ It wasn’t ‘Laugh it off.’ No, it means what it says. You gotta learn to love when you’re failing.…The embracing of that, the discomfort of failing in front of an audience, leads you to penetrate through the fear that blinds you. Fear is the mind killer.”
He talks about how he then started to train himself to LOVE discomfort, embarrassing himself with regularity so that afterward he could say, “Nope, can’t kill me. This thing can’t kill me.” This began to build in him a greater resilience to life, and a feeling of deep gratitude for those most difficult moments life thrusts upon us all.
When asked how it is that he did not become bitter or angry about the profound loss he experienced early in life, Colbert said:
“[T]he answer is: my mother.”
He lifted his arms as if to take in the office, the people working and laughing outside his door, the city and the sky, all of it. “And the world,” he said. “It’s so…lovely. I’m very grateful to be alive, even though I know a lot of dead people.” The urge to be grateful, he said, is not a function of his faith. It’s not “the Gospel tells us” and therefore we give thanks. It is what he has always felt: grateful to be alive. “And so that act, that impulse to be grateful, wants an object. That object I call God. Now, that could be many things. I was raised in a Catholic tradition. I’ll start there. That’s my context for my existence, is that I am here to know God, love God, serve God, that we might be happy with each other in this world and with Him in the next—the catechism. That makes a lot of sense to me. I got that from my mom. And my dad. And my siblings.”
“[B]y her example am I not bitter. By her example. She was not. Broken, yes. Bitter, no.” …. He has said this before—that even in those days of unremitting grief, she drew on her faith that the only way to not be swallowed by sorrow, to in fact recognize that our sorrow is inseparable from our joy, is to always understand our suffering, ourselves, in the light of eternity.
Colbert then shares one of my favorite insights:
“It was a very healthy reciprocal acceptance of suffering,” he said. “Which does not mean being defeated by suffering. Acceptance is not defeat. Acceptance is just awareness.” He smiled in anticipation of the callback: “ ‘You gotta learn to love the bomb,’ ” he said. “Boy, did I have a bomb when I was 10. That was quite an explosion. And I learned to love it. So that’s why. Maybe, I don’t know. That might be why you don’t see me as someone angry and working out my demons onstage. It’s that I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.”
That to me is pure beauty. Loving the thing that I most wish had not happened! I’ve felt this way about my divorce, I’ve felt this way about infertility (see this post I wrote the day we found out our IVF didn’t work). Sometimes when describing it to others, people don’t always understand. I know there are people that I’ve offended when I’ve said “I wouldn’t change any of it, because it is the place I learned to live more meaningfully, more gratefully.” But for me that is where, and when, and how some of the most important growth and healing happens in our life. That kind of acceptance. That kind of love. That kind of gratitude. Like I said, it is pure beauty.
The article closes with one more piece of sage wisdom that sums it all up:
It’s our choice, whether to hate something in our lives or to love every moment of them, even the parts that bring us pain. “At every moment, we are volunteers.”
It is our choice. That is both the most troubling thing we’ll ever learn, and perhaps the most empowering as well. My hope is that this blog helps you see the latter, and not be overwhelmed by the emotion of the former.
Question: If you had to “Learn to love the bomb”, what would that look like for you?