[Stephen Colbert] used to have a note taped to his computer that read, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the existence of God.”
It’s hard to imagine any comedian meditating every day on so sincere a message. It’s even harder when you know his life story, which bears mentioning here—that he is the youngest of eleven kids and that his father and two of his brothers, Peter and Paul, the two closest to him in age, were killed in a plane crash when he was 10. His elder siblings were all off to school or on with their lives by then, and so it was just him and his mother at home together for years….
He was completely traumatized, of course. And one way of contending with the cruel indifference of the universe is to be indifferent in return. But he was also raised in a deeply Catholic intellectual family (his father had been a dean of Yale Medical School and St. Louis University and the Medical College of South Carolina). And so his rebellion against the world was curiously self-driven and thoughtful. He refused to do anything his teachers required of him, but would come home every day and shut himself in his room and read books. “I had so many books taken away from me,” he said. “I read a book a day. Spent all of my allowance on books. Every birthday, confirmation, Christmas—books, please, stacks of books.”
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.
“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.”…
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.”…
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.”