Sunday, December 27, 2015

Stephen Colbert on Grief

I am a fan of Stephen Colbert. I haven’t seen him on the Tonight Show yet, and I only caught the Colbert Report rarely. When I did see his show I felt his heart was enormous and his joy infectious.
My favorite part of the show were his interviews. I thought he had a sensitivity lacking in many other talk show hosts, and in addition, Colbert asked interesting and unusual questions.
Not long ago I read an interview with him, published in GQ, and felt like I got a sense of why his heart is so open. Colbert is the youngest of eleven children. His father and two of his brothers, the two that were closest to him in age, were killed in a plane crash when he was 10. All of his other siblings were in college or living elsewhere, so Colbert lived alone with his mother for many years.
One day, when he was 35, Colbert had a revelation while walking down the street: “The world it’s so…lovely. I’m very grateful to be alive, though I know a lot of dead people.”
I loved hearing him say that about the loveliness of the world; what I call the ‘bounteous beauty’ has helped carry me through this year of grief.
The article says he used to have a note taped to his computer that read, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the existence of God.”
Here is the section of the article about his experience with grief [This is towards the end of the long interview.]:
“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 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.
“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.”

I hope that one day I can get to the experience of love for that thing I most wish had not happened, and I am grateful to Stephen Colbert for his example.

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