It turns out that Stephen Colbert has a sign on his computer that reads, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the existence of God.” No joke. I tell you this by way of context for what comes next. GQ ran a profile of him this month entitled “The Late, Great Stephen Colbert”, checking in with the comedian (and, according to the article, “one of the country’s few public moral intellectuals”!) before he kicks off his much-anticipated stint as host of The Late Show in September. The article is jaw-dropping. What starts out with a story about Colbert needling Eminem on a public-access show in Michigan (above) soon takes a turn, and all of a sudden Colbert is dropping assertions like, “people’s suffering is sacred”. Perhaps the fact that the interviewer is Joel Lovell of This American Life fame should have tipped me off. Anyhoo.
We’ve heard Colbert talk thoughtfully and even beautifully about his Catholic faith before but never this close to the bone. In fact, I’m not sure it gets any closer. This is high-octane stuff. What do I mean? As you may know, Stephen is the youngest of eleven kids. When he was 10 years old, his father and two of his brothers, the two closest to him in age, were killed in a plane crash. Young Stephen was the only child still at home with his mother in the years immediately following. I’ll let Lovell take it from here:
We eventually got around to the question of how it could possibly be that [Colbert] suffered the losses he’s suffered and somehow arrived here. It’s not just that he doesn’t exhibit any of the anger or open-woundedness of so many other comedians; it’s that he appears to be so genuinely grounded and joyful…
It was hard to talk about these things, he said. “I want to answer in ways that are not pat. And so I want to take a moment and think of a way to answer that isn’t pre-packaged.”
Instead he said, “So my reaction when I hear that question isn’t”—he shifted into a somber, sonorous voice—“ ‘Oh, I don’t want to talk about that.’ It’s that I don’t want to say this—ready?” He snapped his fingers and locked eyes with me in a pose of dramatic intensity. “MY. MOTHER.” His face softened. “But the 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.”
He was tracing an arc on the table with his fingers and speaking with such deliberation and care. “I was left alone a lot after Dad and the boys died…. And it was just me and Mom for a long time,” he said. “And by her example am I not bitter. By her example. She was not. Broken, yes. Bitter, no.” Maybe, he said, she had to be that for him. 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. What is this in the light of eternity? Imagine being a parent so filled with your own pain, and yet still being able to pass that on to your son.
“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.”…
I asked him if he could help me understand that better, and he described a letter from Tolkien in response to a priest who had questioned whether Tolkien’s mythos was sufficiently doctrinaire, since it treated death not as a punishment for the sin of the fall but as a gift. “Tolkien says, in a letter back: ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” Colbert knocked his knuckles on the table. “ ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” he said again. His eyes were filled with tears. “So it would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude. It doesn’t mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head.”
He was 35, he said, before he could really feel the truth of that. He was walking down the street, and it “stopped me dead. I went, ‘Oh, I’m grateful. Oh, I feel terrible.’ I felt so guilty to be grateful. But I knew it was true.”