I knew that he had tragedy in his past. I knew he lost his father and brothers in a plane crash at a relatively young age, but I hadn’t reflected much on that until this article. The author, Joel Lovell, very smartly and reflective of the style of storytelling from This American Life, led us deeper into Colbert by framing it around tragedy.
Each time I wrote this, I kept adding to the quote below. I don’t want you, dear reader, to not get it in context, though, few will see in my context. While the entire piece is well worth the read—and please do—in discussing how he’s been able to be so joyful in spite of the tragedy, this section hits home:
[H]e said, “So my reaction when I hear that question [of how he’s been so joyful] 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.”
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.
“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 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.”
His experience and his view of death hit home to me. Faithful readers of this site know that my dad died when I was 12. For all of the pain, for all of the heartache, for the feelings of void hoping for a whisper of fatherly insight, his death was one of the greatest gifts God has given me.
Am I glad my dad died? No. If I could do it all over again, would I want it to play out the same? Of course not. Am I happy he died? Not in the least.
His death still is the worst thing to have happened to me in my life.
His death was one of the greatest turning points in my life.
I measure life in “ages”, in the Tolkien Lord of the Rings way. The first age of my life was “before Dad died”. The second age was “after Dad died”.
It wasn’t until getting married that I realized that a few years before after seriously working on the process of grief and processing the impact of his death via counseling, reflection, and prayer ushered in a new age for me—an age where I was whole again. There was and is still a void. But, I wasn’t broken anymore.
I digress. Back to the point.
His death was the most pivotal moment to make me the man I am today. I am not perfect, but I have to hope that I’m a good person. If so, it is not in spite of having my dad die, it is, at least in part, because he died.
I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.