“Joy is the most infallible sign of the existence of God.” That was the message on a note taped to the computer of Stephen Colbert, the new host of The Late Show. There is something seemingly subversive about a late night comedian who teaches Sunday school and has used his TV gigs to discuss heaven with Anglican theologian Bishop N.T. Wright and defend the divinity of Jesus Christ and the credibility of the New Testament against Dr. Bart Ehrman, a religious scholar who has called Christianity into question. There are several other examples over the years that caused fans to question whether these were the scripted lines of his contrived blowhard TV persona on The Colbert Report or his authentic convictions.
All of this, of course, is done with the quick wit of a court jester and the spiritual banter of a well-read theologian – with the Vatican on speed dial. “If Jesus doesn’t have a sense of humor, I’m in big trouble,” Colbert confessed before 3,000 students at a Fordham University event not long ago with Cardinal Timothy Dolan. Turns out that behind the shtick beats the heart of a true believer.
Shortly before Colbert took over the duties at The Late Show for the retiring David Letterman, he was on the cover of GQ magazine. In a 6,000 word profile, journalist Joel Lovell attempted to help readers understand how Colbert has dealt with the gut-wrenching tragedy of losing both his father and two brothers in a plane crash when he was 10 years old.
As one can imagine, the cloud of that horrific event haunted him throughout his teen years and through college – a period of time where he discovered a love for theater and drama. Eventually, Colbert landed himself a spot at The Second City, Chicago’s premier comedy club and school of improvisation. On his very first night on stage Second City’s director Jeff Michalski gave him one bit of essential advice: “You have to learn to love the bomb.”
“It took me a long time to really understand what that meant,” Colbert told GQ. “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.”
Ever since then Colbert has attempted to steer towards the fear that can so easily cripple us. “I like to do things that are publicly embarrassing,” he said, “to feel the embarrassment touch me and sink into me and then be gone. I like getting on elevators and singing too loudly in that small space. The feeling you feel is almost like a vapor. The discomfort and the wishing that it would end that comes around you. I would do things like that and just breathe it in.” During the interview, he paused for dramatic effect: “Nope, can’t kill me. This thing can’t kill me.” In our darkest moments, it is essential to remind ourselves of that truth.
For someone who has been through so much emotional devastation as a young boy, one would not be surprised to see him lash back at the dark clouds of life with a steady flow of comedic cynicism and snark – a common currency for stand-up comedians. Instead, Colbert responds counterintuitively. “I’m not angry. I’m not. I’m mystified, I’ll tell you that. But I’m not angry…. 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.”
What he declares is not easily understood. This isn’t the message inside a condolence card. Colbert points to his mother as the source of his equilibrium after the tragedy. Yes, his mother – and a deeply compelling sense of gratitude. “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.”
For many years after the death of his father and his two brothers it was just Colbert and his mother – struggling and coping together. “And by her example I am not bitter,” he said. “By her example. She was not. Broken, yes. Bitter, no.” His mother desperately relied on a faith that teaches us not to be devoured by sorrow (Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid”), to recognize that too often pain is inseparable from joy, and that we must try to see our suffering in light of eternity.
“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 had been told to learn to love the bomb. “Boy, did I have a bomb when I was 10,” Colbert admits. “That was quite an explosion. And I learned to love it.”
There is nothing cavalier or whimsical about Colbert’s theology of suffering or gratitude. He has made his spiritual peace with the deep scars of his childhood and has chosen to respond with faith, hope, and love. “So it would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude,” he told his interviewer with tears in his eyes. “It doesn’t mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head,” he said. Colbert was 35 before he could really feel the truth of that. “It’s not the same thing as wanting it to have happened,” he said. “But you can’t change everything about the world. You certainly can’t change things that have already happened.”
Tears and laughter. Rejection and acceptance. Cynicism and gratitude. Hate and love. Cowardice and heroism. Pain and joy. These are just some of the choices that we are given. Move forward or spend your life looking over your shoulder.
At the end of his time with GQ, Colbert wrote down a message on a slip of paper and handed it to his interviewer. Joel Lovell has wisely been carrying it around ever since: “At every moment, we are volunteers.” The choices we make mark our accession or decent. We all must learn to love our bombs – working through them so that we are not perpetually hamstrung by their damage. It helps you, Colbert would say, to “penetrate through the fear that blinds you.”