Stephen Colbert made me cry today. Then he taught me to love the pain. All in a cover story for GQ magazine.
I have never seen The Colbert Report. I don’t read GQ. And the only reason a GQ interview with Stephen Colbert caught my eye was that a friend—a Catholic nun—recommended it on Facebook. I’m glad she did.
What I read impressed me, and repeatedly struck a chord that echoed in my innermost self. There are enough gems in the interview to fill a concise guide to mental health and holiness. Here are a few of my favorites:
“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.”
This resonates. I am about to start a new job. More than a few times, I have felt the fear of failing while others watch. To be more accurate, I occasionally wake to the realization that fear has been chasing me in circles. I know that fear drives our instinct to freeze, flee, or fight. It’s incredibly important in a physical survival sense. But when we fear discomfort, fear how others perceive us, fear failing—then freezing and fleeing only lead to more fear. And attempts to fight back usually turn into cutting words that create collateral damage. I know this. I was trained to recognize it. I’ve even written about it. But that knowledge alone has not inoculated me against it.
He said he trained himself, not just onstage but every day in life, even in his dream states, to steer toward fear rather than away from it. “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.” … He stopped and took in a deep yogic breath, then slowly shook his head. “Nope, can’t kill me. This thing can’t kill me.”
He is neither fleeing, fighting, nor freezing. As he describes it, Colbert is active, present and engaged in allowing the feared thing to happen, to touch him. And every time, the message is reinforced: “This thing can’t kill me.” In terms of neuropsychology, this behavior is rewiring his brain to produce smaller and smaller fear responses to situations that will not harm him. This active, willing exposure to fear is very effective. It is the basis for the most effective treatments for a wide range of phobias. As Colbert put it, “What you’re doing is sipping little bits of arsenic so that you can’t be poisoned by the rest of your discomfort.”
Accept suffering? Learn to love loss and pain, even the loss of family? These are countercultural ideas.
How did he develop such a powerful, healthy habit? Not without significant lessons taught by suffering. He experienced tragedy early in life when his father and two brothers died in a plane crash. At ten years old, he was left as the only child at home with his mother. As he explained what helped him through that experience, he first cited his mother’s strength, then talked about his faith in God. But it was the lessons on acceptance and gratitude that knocked me over.
“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.”
Accept suffering? Learn to love loss and pain, even the loss of family? These are countercultural ideas. Clearly they have immense meaning for Colbert, and this acceptance has granted him great freedom. This makes sense from a religious point of view. After all, Jesus’ crucifixion is at the same time the most regrettable crime ever committed by humanity, and the source of our salvation. But Colbert’s words are still shocking. LOVE that tragedy? How is it possible?
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: ‘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.”
This is where he got me. While reading Colbert’s words, I was first overwhelmed by the love and generosity of a God who only gives gifts. Then I was immediately reminded of how ungrateful I often am, how much I complain when faced with small challenges or setbacks. How can I be so petty when this man has found room for gratitude in the face of such tragedy? I felt sad and guilty and blessed all at the same time. My eyes too filled with tears.
And yet I was glad for the feeling. Even grateful, maybe. I channeled Colbert and let those feelings wash over me, like the tears that ran down my cheeks. As they naturally started to fade, I felt refreshed and reflective.
Wow. He lost his father. His brothers. And yet says “What punishments of God are not gifts?” This is seeing clearly. Pain and gratitude. Loss and gift. Both felt, held, accepted at once.
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.”
We often hear that pain, discomfort and loss are to be avoided at all costs. But there is no quicker way to misery. Instead, the path to lasting joy is paved with acceptance and gratitude. And the surest guide on that road is often suffering. It is with this in mind that such a successful comedian can tape to his computer the words “Joy is the most infallible sign of the existence of God” and then also with complete consistency state “Tragedy is sacred. People’s suffering is sacred.”
C.S. Lewis once wrote, “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains: It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
Exposure to fear is the basis for the most effective treatments for a wide range of phobias.
I live in a culture that does not find any value in pain, or meaning in suffering. Seeking to alleviate pain and suffering is a noble goal. But numbing ourselves to suffering in the present moment can cut us off from the transcendent and distance us from the most powerful reminder of our contingency. Suffering is indeed sacred.
Every day presents me with its own challenges, its own discomforts. I struggle to be a good father, a diligent worker, a patient man. Every day, I have innumerable choices: will I choose my comfort or will I allow pain in service of growth and for the sake of those I love? Will I get lost in my frustration or anger, or will I accept and experience the suffering present in this moment? I am free to accept or reject the gift, even as I may wish it gone. This is the clarity captured in Colbert’s words. As the interview concludes:
“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.’”
In a nutshell, this could be the “Colbert Guide to a Healthy and Holy Life”:
• Remember that fear blinds us and strangles our spirit.
• Acceptance does not mean defeat. On the contrary, it allows us to be present to what is real, and empowers us to let fear pass.
• The willingness to be uncomfortable makes the joyful life possible.
• Suffering and sorrow can be incredible gifts.
• Gratitude is the faith-filled response to life, even the painful parts.
• Pain, sadness and grief can coexist with acceptance, willingness and gratitude.
I was not expecting to feel sadness and shed tears when I clicked on that link to GQ. Having to face my flaws and confront my fears was not pleasant. But I am forever grateful for the experience.
* To read a short article with additional excerpts from the Colbert interview, click here.