Stephen Colbert on Learning to Love the Bomb

If you read one article this late-summer Sunday, make it Joel Lovell's GQ profile of Stephen Colbert. It especially will be of interest to Commonweal readers for the moving way Colbert talks about the suffering and loss he's experienced in his life – most of you will know his father and two brothers were killed in a plane crash when he was ten years old – and their relationship to his Catholic faith. But what stayed with me from the piece was not just the wisdom and lack of cant with which Colbert talks about pain and loss, but the affirmation and joy and gratitude with which they're mingled. An example:

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.”

Or consider this anecdote also mentioned in the article: Colbert once had a note taped to his computer that read, "Joy is the most infallible sign of the existence of God." 

The persistence of gratitude and joy in his life connects to what Colbert describes as "learning to love the bomb," a phrase taken from a director he worked with early in his career. The explanation for it is below the fold, mainly because it comes at the end of the article – some might want to read it first in context, fresh. Here it is:

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.”

Consider that this is coming from a man who millions of people will soon watch on their televisions every night—if only there were a way to measure the virality of this, which he'll never say on TV, I imagine, but which, as far as I can tell, he practices every waking minute of his life.

The next thing he said I wrote on a slip of paper in his office and have carried it around with me since. 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.”

Again, you can read the entire profile here

Matthew Sitman is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Twitter.

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