Stephen Colbert Loves the Thing He Most Wishes Had Not Happened

It turns out that Stephen Colbert has a sign on his computer that reads, “Joy […]

David Zahl / 8.19.15

It turns out that Stephen Colbert has a sign on his computer that reads, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the existence of God.” No joke. I tell you this by way of context for what comes next. GQ ran a profile of him this month entitled “The Late, Great Stephen Colbert”, checking in with the comedian (and, according to the article, “one of the country’s few public moral intellectuals”!) before he kicks off his much-anticipated stint as host of The Late Show in September. The article is jaw-dropping. What starts out with a story about Colbert needling Eminem on a public-access show in Michigan (above) soon takes a turn, and all of a sudden Colbert is dropping assertions like, “people’s suffering is sacred”. Perhaps the fact that the interviewer is Joel Lovell of This American Life fame should have tipped me off. Anyhoo.

We’ve heard Colbert talk thoughtfully and even beautifully about his Catholic faith before but never this close to the bone. In fact, I’m not sure it gets any closer. This is high-octane stuff. What do I mean? As you may know, Stephen is the youngest of eleven kids. When he was 10 years old, his father and two of his brothers, the two closest to him in age, were killed in a plane crash. Young Stephen was the only child still at home with his mother in the years immediately following. I’ll let Lovell take it from here:

COLBERT-0915-GQ-COVERWe eventually got around to the question of how it could possibly be that [Colbert] suffered the losses he’s suffered and somehow arrived here. It’s not just that he doesn’t exhibit any of the anger or open-woundedness of so many other comedians; it’s that he appears to be so genuinely grounded and joyful…

It was hard to talk about these things, he said. “I want to answer in ways that are not pat. And so I want to take a moment and think of a way to answer that isn’t pre-packaged.”

Instead he said, “So my reaction when I hear that question isn’t”—he shifted into a somber, sonorous voice—“ ‘Oh, I don’t want to talk about that.’ It’s that I don’t want to say this—ready?” He snapped his fingers and locked eyes with me in a pose of dramatic intensity. “MY. MOTHER.” His face softened. “But the answer is: my mother.”

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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.”

He was tracing an arc on the table with his fingers and speaking with such deliberation and care. “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.

stephen-colbert-1“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 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.”

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46 responses to “Stephen Colbert Loves the Thing He Most Wishes Had Not Happened”

  1. Em7srv says:


  2. Debi Winrich says:

    “I can hold both of those things in my head.” It makes me think of “the already but not yet”. We are already seated with Him in the heavenly places (Ephesians) while we wallow in the mire of this life on earth. Late night will not know what hit it….

  3. Nadia says:

    This is the Real Thing.

  4. Jacob C says:

    As someone who is going through addiction recovery, I understand this idea of loving the thing I wished never happened. Sorrow and joy, pain and healing, truth and grace. They can and do coexist at the same time. What punishments of God are not gifts indeed!

  5. Fisherman says:

    On Joy and Sorrow
    by Kahlil Gibran

    Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
    And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
    And how else can it be?
    The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
    Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
    And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
    When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
    When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

    Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”
    But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
    Together they come, and when one sits, alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.

    Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.
    Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced.
    When the treasure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver, needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.

  6. Sarah Condon says:

    Thanks David. Also, the video at the end is something I think about each time bedtime gets extended by my 4 year old. Gentleness, humor, and honesty about suffering really can all happen simultaneously.

    • Jeff Wescott says:

      Sarah, I so remember that feeling of the extended bedtime, along with the guilt over feeling the selfish desire for my own time. And I remember thinking how short and sweet the age of 4 would be in both of my daughters. It’s no different, BTW, now that my eldest is twenty and on her way to study in France! As you so deftly put it, gentleness and the rest are key.

  7. Steven Shoemaker says:

    Well, I like Colbert, and love the writings of Tolkein (both in the Catholic Christian tradition), but as a Protestant Christian I do not see suffering and evil and tragic deaths as EITHER punishments or gifts from God. If God is love is the central Christian (and Biblical) truth, then God wants only the best for all people. Yes, God loves freedom, so we can hurt or help others, and our world fits humans and is free also (cars can carry us on errands of mercy, or can crash killing innocent parents and kids. Water nourishes us, floods drown us.)
    I believe God suffers with us as we suffer, and gives us hope as we help relieve the suffering of others.
    As Jesus died he said to John, “Behold your Mother.” (to suffering Mary, the Mother of Jesus). John took her to live with him…

    • patricia says:

      As a follower of Jesus Christ,I believe Gods word:Can it be any plainer?
      2Thessonians 5:16-18 In everything give thanks.When we do,we allow God to embrace us in our circumstances ending in joy unspeakable.

      • amylynn says:

        Thank you, that passage finally helped me understand all of this better.
        Like Stephen said, I too know a lot of people who are gone. Well, he used the D-word, which for some reason is just too hard for me to say. I never knew until I watched his interview with Vice President Biden earlier this morning that Colbert had suffered such a huge, horrible loss. I love people like that, who, unlike me, can put death (ok, I “said” it) in the right perspective. My Mom has, for my entire life, talked about this life being a vapor and “in light of eternity”, especially when I have sat, crying to her about loss after loss after loss. I always, in the back of my mind, thought, “Well, she just can’t wait to get to heaven, so of course she says that”. But maybe that’s not the whole story.
        It was interesting that Stephen talked about Tolkien, I was thinking of a phrase from his friend CS Lewis about the only way you can keep pain away is to lock your heart away, and never let it love….To not ever feel joy again but to be immune to pain? That would absolutely be worse.
        Excellent interview, really good to know these things about Stephen Colbert. Still kind of thinking “wow” a lot.

  8. Jeff Wescott says:

    Yes, and so Mary and John were Christ’s gifts to each other. I think the point in the article, Colbert’s view, and that of Tolkien is to realize that only when we seek the gift in what appears as punishment can we move forward without bitterness. I’m not saying I’ve got this licked, mind you, but I think that’s what he meant.

  9. Don Saliers says:

    Such a deep down gratitude is absolutely essential to religious faith and life. This speaks a form of Christianity that popular culture so rarely sees. It cuts across all dogmatism, and remains the secret hidden from so many. Combine a greatful heart with a sense of wonder (see Abraham Heschel) and compassion for human beings and all creatures…and the mystery of the world is revealed. Thanks, Mr. Colbert, for your authentic witness.

  10. PatrickCahel says:

    Thank you, Stephen! Thank you, Mr. Zahl!

    Mr. Colbert expressed, quite succinctly and beautifully, thoughts I have held for many, many years. “I can hold both of these ideas in my head.” THAT is the difficult part – not the struggle to hold both ideas. That part was actually easy.

    When you CAN hold both ideas in your head, people may see you as a mystery, something they can’t explain or relate to. One of the difficult parts of life has been being so lonely, being so only because it is such a difficult thing to explain certain things in a way that the “average” person will understand. Putting it into your own words is not enough. It is easy to repeat words. Being able to utter them, however, is not the same as existing through them.

    Events in the life of Patrick Cahel (many events, aside from the obvious) have contributed to a perspective that embraces life as being beautiful in ways that others often don’t accept. These events have enabled a peace and satisfaction that are often foreign to others.

    I have toiled very many times in response to people who insist that I should live in their world, where things are better; who have attempted to agitate, analyze, and berate me into surrendering and “admitting” flaws that I don’t have; who have battled their own demons by using me as the substrate of their projections.

    I understand, empathize unto, and appreciate suffering of others in ways that allow me to connect with almost anyone. Beyond that connection, I have a very difficult time relating to people. Perhaps that is because, in many people’s mind-cages, it is not possible, or I am not allowed to, hold so many ideas in my head at once.

    My fiction:

    After a thousand wearisome and protracted exchanges, they stood in my path, precluding my attempt to advance, with condescending grins and snapping fingers, obscuring my view of the meadow beyond.

    “You stay right there!” they barked. “I am going to prove that you believe falsely, and educate you with what should instead believe!”

    Wryly, I suggested, “I will listen, but only if you will wear my trousers.”

    They perplexedly commanded, “YOUR trousers will not fit ME!”

    I replied, “If you understood this, then you should allow me to pass. Else, I will simply be patient, and we will wait together.” – The End

    Patience is akin to suffering. It is said that Jesus bore his fate upon the cross through patience and humor.

    As for all of the trouble, toil, and suffering mentioned above – well, that’s just part of life, and I am left to ponder. 🙂

  11. Sam Hudson says:

    Thank you, David. Power stuff.

  12. I just discovered this wonderful post and great website. David Zahl, thank you for highlighting for us a genuine voice of faith, hope, and love in a media field littered with trash. Then I saw that the home base for Mockingbird is Charlottesville, VA. Exciting! I hope to keep reading.

  13. Zoran says:

    This is excellent. My only query would be this. I believe that suffering is not punishment – for we deserve much more punishment than we get in this life – in fact Christ died to take our punishment. However when it comes to death I think Tolkein got it wrong if he is saying it is a gift for everyone. Sadly although the release from this “”vale of tears” into god’s presence will indeed be a gift for the one who has accepted Christ’s lordship (not just friendship), for those who rejected it, it will not be a gift at all. So this makes it incumbent on us to plead with people to be reconciled to God through him who said he is the only Way, Jesus Christ before it is to late. We must have the courage to love others (and suffer rejection or ridicule) by not stating or implying any universalist philosophy that all will be well for everyone – it will not be. Jesus was tearful when his people refused him – we should also be the same.

    • Nancy Meager says:

      That terrible moment in Eden when fellowship with God was broken, death was given as a gift to mankind. The punishment would have been to let them have the fruit from the tree of life—to never die and receive the chance to be renewed and reconciled with the Creator. The estrangement which defines the lost (in salvation terms) would be unending and without any hope of resolution–rather like the effects of Tolkien’s One Ring which gave an extended lifespan but no chance to move on. Bilbo Baggins said ” I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” (Fellowship of the RIng) There are different levels of “all will be well for everyone”–not the universal salvation but the idea of suffering ended–not even so much the earthly pain relieved–just an end to the spiritual suffering of trying to exist without the God you rejected.

      • Jeff Wescott says:

        Nancy Meager, thank you for your beautiful and succinct comment. I teach a course in mythology and the Garden myth is one I spend a good deal of time discussing. With your permission, I’d like to use your comment with my students.

        • Nancy Meager says:

          to Jeff Wescott—by all means if you find something worth sharing in my words please do so! Thank you for your kind words about something I wrote!

  14. Dan says:

    Reminds me of Acceptance-with-joy from Hinds’ Feet on High Places. Great book.

  15. Lawrence Taylor says:

    Truly, joy is our default mode. Or another way of saying it: we default back to God (if we let ourselves).
    Dear Lord, touch our reset buttons!

  16. Potnatheron says:

    Ah, but Life is a table we sit at with the bitter and sweet, the raw ingredients from which we make the meal we thrive or sicken from. Here we are. Our assignment is to learn, create from what is given and what we have made for ourselves. Stephen has made a fine gift to us all.

  17. Sue Jorgenson says:

    Must one be religious to understand this truth? Or to be filled with this deep gratitude? No. I am on my own path, a path that doesn’t include organized religion, and my life experiences have taught me these lessons. That said, my hat’s off to Mr. Colbert for being so deeply and authentically human. A powerful article. Thank you.

  18. Pam says:

    Immediately Shakespeare comes to mind:
    Sweet are the uses of adversity;
    Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
    Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.

    Colbert makes that more understandable.

  19. Jenny says:

    I am now suffering the intense pain of losing my dearest soul mate to death. The incredible joy I have known by his love and his presence have only been intensified by the deep gaping wound of his death. I truly do not know how much more of the suffering I can endure. But I pray daily for some sense of purpose in the midst of all the torture.

  20. The dude says:

    How about colberts words…”imagine being a parent so filled with your own pain and yet being able to pass it on to your son”
    Cmon Bible quoters. Remind you of something maybe you read once?

  21. K mtjoy says:

    Sorrows come to hollow places in the heart for joys that follow…Ralph Waldo Emerson
    Will look forward to the Late Show…fun quirky, thoughtful,poignant and TV with some intellect!!

  22. Jeff Wescott says:

    I cannot know the pain you are experiencing, but I have known the pain of losing someone close to me. I learned, in my suffering, not to look for a purpose. We create a need for purpose in our lives. If I read Colbert and Tolkien’s idea correctly, the challenge is to watch for the time in which you might see your beloved’s death as a gift. What things are revealed to you in the midst of your suffering? I can think of many, though I suffered long, and with great anger, over the early loss of my father. May peace be upon you.

  23. fahrender says:


  24. Ann Kurz says:

    What is most vital here is that we feel…something… in the depths of our bodies and souls. A young girl wrote a poem once, and she asked to experience “the best and the worst of it all!” She was exceptionally beautiful, unselfconscious of her effect on others, and then before anyone could imagine, the unthinkable happened. She was crushed beneath her favorite horse when he threw her off for some unknown reason, and she died. Her friend and neighbor was my college roommate. She learned of this death through a letter; remembered the poem; grieved; laughed, and all at the same time. Mr. Colbert is joyful because he has experienced such profound sorrow…the best and the worst of it all! It is understandable how he can hold both in his head at the same time.

  25. Lynn says:

    Thank you for this. What refreshing, and deeply human, journalism.

  26. patricia caswell says:

    appreciate the deep truths shared here.

  27. Pat Mannix says:

    I’m sorry. This all sounds just so so nice and insightful. It also sounds very US, middle class, white and privileged. Is this what you would advise the people living in hells named Haiti, Somalia, Sudan, Palestine and the like? They should be so glad about their devastation at the same time they are suffering so greatly? When you have them agreeing, I will listen to this. Until then, no way.

    • Jack Stephens says:

      Yes, absolutely. Let me tell you about my friend. He is Ethiopian, was born illegitimately, shunned by his mother at birth, and raised by his maternal grandmother, who he was told was his mother. He grew up in poverty, while his mother married a wealthy man and went on to have a family. He was 12 before he learned the truth of his birth. His half siblings grew up in privilege, private schools, new clothes and servants, while he grew up with very little, still shunned by his birth mother, but loved unconditionally by his grandmother. As a young man he fled the country, lived for a year in tented refuge camp in Kenya, eventually made it to the United States, and after many menial jobs became a Certified Nursing Assistant. He has worked with my family for the past 7 years, helping us care for may severely disabled adult son. Every day he changes Sean’s diapers, feeds and dresses him. He is an incredibly smart man, with a wicked sense of humor, and I am sure could have been a professional given the right circumstances in life.
      We talk frequently, and if there is anyone who lives what Colbert is talking about it is he. The other day he became quiet and very seriously told me “My life is perfect”. He has a wife and two wonderful children, he loves his work, his is content. He smiles and laughs all the time. I am much more privileged than he, and much less content. I worry all the time about what is wrong in my life, and he is only grateful for what is right in his.
      This says NOTHING about improving the lot of the underprivileged, impoverished, and victimized peoples of the world. That work goes on, and remains incredibly important. This is about how you structure your inner world, and how your deal with the hurt and suffering that is part of being human.

  28. Jeff Wescott says:

    I doubt very much that my words will help you, but it is entirely possible that people living in such tortured areas of the world need this the most. I’d be hard pressed to imagine that there aren’t some people in those places who feel the same way as Stephen Colbert. Besides, if you wait for world peace before you embrace joy, your life will go unlived.

  29. Ross Byrd says:

    This makes me so happy. Colbert makes me happy. That Tolkien quote makes me really happy (can we have conversation/post just on that quote?). Thanks for making me happy.

  30. G. Silcox says:

    “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
    Falls drop by drop upon the heart
    Until, in our own despair, against our will,
    Wisdom comes to us through the awful grace of God.” — Aeschylus

  31. Rebecca says:

    Per F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” So much mysterious richness in this–lots to ponder!

  32. Tom Nauer says:

    Thanks fot posting this Steve!!!

  33. David Valencia says:

    I guess he reads Chesterton

  34. Zach says:

    “I have again left Tipasa; I have returned to Europe and its struggles. But the memory of that day still uplifts me and helps me to welcome equally what delights and what crushes. In the difficult hour we are living, what else can I desire than to exclude nothing and to learn how to braid with white thread and black thread a single cord stretched to the breaking-point? In everything I have done or said up to now, I seem to recognize these two forces, even when they work at cross-purposes. I have not been able to disown the light into which I was born and yet I have not wanted to reject the servitudes of this time. It would be too easy to contrast here with the sweet name of Tipasa other more sonorous and crueler names. For men of today there is an inner way, which I know well from having taken it in both directions, leading from the spiritual hilltops to the capitals of crime. And doubtless one can always rest, fall asleep on the hilltop or board with crime. But if one forgoes a part of what is, one must forgo being oneself; one must forgo living or loving otherwise than by proxy. There is thus a will to live without rejecting anything of life, which is the virtue I honor most in this world. From time to time, at least, it is true that I should like to have practiced it. Inasmuch as few epochs require as much as ours that one should be equal to the best as to the worst, I should like, indeed, to shirk nothing and to keep faithfully a double memory. Yes, there is beauty and there are the humiliated. Whatever may be the difficulties of the undertaking, I should like never to be unfaithful either to one or to the others.”


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