Just a week after David Letterman announced his retirement, American TV audiences learned that the late night legend would be succeeded by none other than Colbert Report host Stephen Colbert. CBS, whose late night ratings have been declining in recent years, is surely thrilled to have landed Colbert, who will be able to compete with NBC’s Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon for younger audiences. Colbert, for his part, appears to have had his eye on the Late Show for some time. His last several contracts with Comedy Central, which is owned by the same parent company as CBS, just happened to align with Letterman’s.
I, on the other hand, am not happy about the new arrangement. As a matter of fact, I was rather depressed when I first heard the news, as were many others I know. Colbert’s ascension to the Late Show spells the end of the Colbert Report, which I have come to rely on as a sure-fire source of laughter and amusement. What’s more, CBS has made it clear that Colbert’s conservative blowhard persona will not be following him to the Late Show. From where I am sitting right now, it is hard to view this change as anything but a tragic loss.
After this year, we will never again watch Colbert feigningly bask in the applause intended for his guest or unveil yet another new political reporting gadget or deny awareness of his own skin color due to his supposed race blindness or heap false praise upon his beloved “Papa Bear” Bill O’Reilly. But more than these whimsical aspects of the show, what I truly lament is the loss of the service Colbert provides to the public by regularly exposing the more ridiculous aspects of US culture and politics. Over the years he has complained to a Congressional committee that neither he nor anyone else wants to do the labor of immigrant workers, revealed the intricacies of campaign finance corruption by creating his own Super PAC, and facetiously reviled Obamacare for destroying America by insuring millions of citizens without basic healthcare, just to name a few examples. Given Colbert’s ability to command the attention of vast audiences, his antics—comical as they are—have likely done more to raise awareness of these issues than most “serious” journalists will do in a lifetime.
In short, the end of the Colbert Report seems like a tremendous loss. Sure, Stephen Colbert will likely remain on the air for many years to come, but I have a hard time believing the new Colbert will be as good as the one we have known thus far.
Why is that?
It seems to me that my difficulty in letting go of the Colbert Report is not a purely personal problem but rather an instance of a perennial human struggle, namely, our struggle to let go of what we are comfortable with in order to welcome new and unfamiliar possibilities. It has been well documented in psychological studies that people tend to place a higher value on a good that they already possess than on an identical good that they do not possess. As a result, we experience what psychologists call “loss aversion,” a strong preference for avoiding losses over acquiring gains. But we don’t need academic studies to tell us that. Each of us has hesitated at the prospect of trying a new hairstyle, leaving home for a new place, or ending an unhealthy relationship in hopes of finding someone who will love us better. Even if the chances are good that something better awaits us on the other side of change, we hesitate to leave behind the sure thing that is good enough…even when it really isn’t.
Because of this tendency, we sometimes fail to recognize the possibilities and value inherent in a different way of doing things. Our ideas of improvement, suggests C. S. Lewis, tends to be rather narrow. In Mere Christianity, Lewis writes:
Thousands of centuries ago huge, very heavily armoured creatures were evolved. If anyone had at that time been watching the course of Evolution he would probably have expected that it was going to go on to heavier and heavier armour. But he would have been wrong. The future had a card up its sleeve which nothing at that time would have led him to expect. It was going to spring on him little, naked, unarmoured animals which had better brains: and with those brains they were going to master the whole planet.
So, Lewis points out, evolution did not follow the expected path but instead took a dramatic and surprising turn. Yet, despite such lessons of history and science, we still tend to envision the path of development in strictly linear terms. Individually we envision our ultimate happiness as the end point of a steady increase of what we already possess—more money, more possessions, more friends, more professional accolades. This path seems assured to us. It seems safe. But that security is an illusion. What appears to us the safest path inevitably turns out to be a road to nowhere. Tycoons with piles of money end up more miserable than when they earned their first dollar. Corporate big shots and law firm partners realize late in life that the mansion of a life they have constructed for themselves is as empty on the inside as it is impressive from without.
The reason such plans inevitably fail is that they are merely human plans, limited by the constraints of human imagination and wisdom. The truth of the matter is that human beatitude lies in a fulfillment that transcends not only our ability to create but even our ability to imagine. We pursue a vision of happiness that is based on the finite pleasures of which we have direct experience, but the happiness that God intends for us is far greater than we can imagine and is achieved in a way we’d never expect.
Pat Reidy, a personal friend and newly minted Holy Cross priest, spoke eloquently to this truth in a hilarious and profound Easter Sunday homily. Tapping into the buzz around the Disney movie Frozen (SPOILER ALERT: Skip to next paragraph if you haven’t seen it and don’t want to know how it ends), Fr. Reidy attributed the immense popularity of the film in part to its unexpected ending. The act of true love upon which the plot hinges turns out to be, not the kiss of the protagonist’s romantic interest, but rather her sacrificing her life for her sister. This ending indeed comes as a surprise for anyone familiar with the usual Disney formula, but it is far from original. The original plot twist came two thousand years ago when God took on human flesh and revealed to all of us that the key to overcoming suffering is not taking whatever one can for oneself, as human beings always seem to assume. Rather the key lies in the willingness to give up all one has out of love for another, even one’s own life. What by all appearances looked like a one-way trip into death in fact turned out to be the way to life in its fullness.
The truth revealed on Easter Sunday thus runs counter to everything we think we know about life in this world. Our tendency is to cling to what we know and what we already have. That seems the obvious, pragmatic thing to do. Yet God in the person of Jesus proved to us that we have thought too small, dared to imagine too little. In clenching our hands around what little we have, we close ourselves off from the infinite riches God desires to share with us—new experiences, new relationships, new selves, and a love greater than we think our hearts can bear. If we would receive all the goodness that God wants for us, we must loosen our grip and open ourselves to the unfamiliar, the uncertain, the unforeseen.
Stephen Colbert may or may not exceed expectations in his new role as the Late Show host. Only time will tell. What is certain, though, is that God will not disappoint. In the words of St. Paul, “‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him’—these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit” (1 Cor 2:9-10). We cannot imagine the joy of the new life God has in store for us, but neither can we fail to be fulfilled if we open our hearts to Him.