Wise Words From Funny Man, Stephen Colbert

Photograph by Sebastian Kim of GQ

(By Danny)

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?

2017-04-27T17:38:52+00:00 Tags: , , |6 Comments
By |Overcoming Trials

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  1. Miggy August 26, 2015 at 6:27 pm - Reply

    I've been re-reading and thinking about the last half of this article for days. Saying to myself over and over, "You have to learn to love the bomb." I also love it when he says, "The world is so lovely." Partly because although it is true I forget all the time and partly because I am astounded at his complete lack of cynicism. I am definitely impressed by the message of this interview and think about it often, but I'm also by the messenger… he is so comfortable in his own skin as someone who openly discusses and loves God and as someone who has chosen joy and gratitude. I think that's a little rare in general and even more rare in the entertainment industry.

    Anyway, for me learning to love the bomb is about letting go of fear (i know obvi) and one that is a little harder to define–embracing the bomb of a difficult relationship with a family member. Honestly the gut-wrenching stuff (break-ups, loss) is easier to understand the bomb metaphor in this context of growth and how it changes you for the better…but this difficult family relationship as an ongoing struggle and not one big cataclysmic event to overcome and therefore I just I have a hard time applying this mentality. How do I love this bomb that is a continual source of stress and frustration?

    • danny August 26, 2015 at 11:58 pm - Reply

      Good question. Part of the reason I loved this message, is I've also been reading a book called "The Obstacle is the Way" – which covers some basics in Stoic philosophy.

      The title says it all. The obstacle in front of you is not the thing to be avoided, it is the way to peace. It is the reason you will encounter it.

      I think knowing that can have a big impact on how we look at some of those constant, ever recurring things in life. What if the family member wasn't the obstacle to your peace in your home…but the reason you'll learn what real peace is? What if having to discover how to apply virtues to this particular relationship is the thing that will make it so that virtue comes easy to other things?

      So, the Obstacle (your difficult family member(s)) is actually the reason you'll learn this stuff. It's your opportunity. And every interaction with them becomes a chance to try something new and different and see if there is a reaction, a way of thinking, that can make the next interaction less painful.

      Instead of worrying about how big the obstacle is (some people will NEVER change), think instead about the fact that you have a constant source of "drama" against which you can try to apply all sorts of tools. And the goal of course isn't to change them, it's to change how you perceive and react to them. It is to see if you can manage to not add to any of the drama, can you bring compassion and understanding to others in the wake of their dysfunction, instead of add your own dysfunction to it all and see it continue to multiply.

      Anyway, just some thoughts. 🙂

    • Virginia Prescott August 27, 2015 at 3:36 am - Reply

      I love that thought Danny! I have a difficult relationship with my father-in-law and after losing a child I could no longer stand to be around him at all. He is a diagnosed narcissist with many addictions and his personality felt like torture piled on top of grief. I spent a whole year avoiding him and the rest of my in-laws at any and all cost. But it started to feel like it was getting harder and harder and finally I started studying and reading and pondering how I could deal with this relationship. I spent so much time wishing he could change,and venting and being frustrated. I decided to try a new approach. I tied a red string around my wrist and any time that I saw that string during my day, I chose to have a positive thought about my in-laws. I thought about how they tried to show their love in imperfect ways that I didn't agree with, but they tried. I thought about the progress they have made in the years that I have known them. I thought about how I know that inherently they are good.

      It was amazing. The next time around them I wasn't preparing to be frustrated or annoyed, I saw them as children of God and although I still can have difficulties with them and I no longer wear the red string, I feel like a learned a tool to help me cope not only with them, but with so many other areas in my life.

      Anyways, all this to say I agree with Danny.

    • danny August 27, 2015 at 4:21 am - Reply

      Virginia! This is awesome. So happy to hear that the ideas I stated in theory above were real life for you. So glad you had the courage to begin to approach things from a very different perspective, and that it changed your actual experience of interacting with them.

  2. Anonymous August 27, 2015 at 3:08 am - Reply

    I've loved Stephen Colbert ever since I heard him in an interview on NPR's Fresh Air in 2007. I didn't realize until then that his character on The Colbert Report was just that – a CHARACTER. I didn't know that he was actually a really serious person with a lot of depth and intelligence. I love what he says to his son about God's love (at 40:30). He also talks about the accident that took his dad and brother and how it affected his relationship with his mom.

    • danny August 27, 2015 at 4:19 am - Reply

      I'll have to give that a listen, thanks for the recommendation.

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