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Essay

Stephen Colbert: Pain, All Grown Up

By August 24, 2015 One Comment
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As a general fan of sarcasm and satire, I thoroughly enjoyed Stephen Colbert’s shenanigans on the Colbert Report. Now, as only two weeks remain before his debut as the new host of the Late Show, I join many others in wondering what it will be like to hear Colbert “as himself” instead of in character. I suspect he will be sincere but not overly serious, and I trust that his sharp and insightful wit will convey the same level of his trademark “truthiness” even without the antics and affectations.

This week I read a story on Colbert that only increased my eagerness to hear more. I wouldn’t have noticed it, since it was published in a source I rarely consult (GQ!) but more and more people were sharing it on social media so I dug in to see what the gushing was about. Now it’s my turn to gush. Or, you can stop right here and just read Joel Lovell’s article for yourself.

In the latter half of the story Colbert’s personal and theological depth are stirring. There are plenty of people who have gained, maintained, or lost their appeal as celebrities because of the dysfunctional ways they have digested the pain in their lives. There is no shortage of tales of celebrities spinning out of control or succumbing to their shadow sides; they fuel public gawking continuously. Colbert is different in part because of the way he has come to understand the tragedies in his own life.

As the article recounts, when he was 10 years old, Stephen Colbert’s father and two of his brothers, the siblings closest to him in age, died in a plane crash. Since his other older siblings (he was the youngest of 11) were out of the house, Stephen and his mother were on their own for many years. He admits in piercing testimony how much he was shaped by his mother’s ability to weather the crushing losses they endured. Her Catholic faith, says Colbert, was evident as a source of solid footing in the midst of tragedy, allowing her to grapple with suffering in the light of eternity. Lovell quotes Colbert, “‘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.’”

Broken, yes. Bitter, no. The steady example set by his mother is detectable in Colbert’s own account of how suffering such losses has impacted him: “I’m not angry. I’m not. I’m mystified, I’ll tell you that. But I’m not angry.”

Mystified. He doesn’t need to be angry or work out his own demons onstage, he says, because he has come to be able to say “I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.”

“I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.”

Now I’m mystified, but the truth and the fruit of that kind of love is so compelling. To love the thing you most wish had not happened. It echoes the kind of long-sought, hard-won peace and wisdom you occasionally hear from someone who has survived utter heartbreak. Colbert admits it took decades to arrive at that mindset, and I don’t think he’d fault those whose similar struggles last all life long. But it is undeniable how generative and how freeing that mystified, loving state is for Colbert. I think it’s what makes us trust him, and what makes us in turn free to join him in holding up our nation and its zany politics to the light, finding a way to laugh even as we lament. If that crushed, bereaved little boy can awaken to awe and find the world’s hilarity once more, there just might be some mystified chuckling in store for us all.

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