“Joy Machine”: The Wisdom of Stephen Colbert

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I don’t read GQ very much–ok, ever–so I’m not sure how often you could use the word “transcendent” to describe one of its articles. But you can this month. Joel Lovell’s interview with Stephen Colbert is transcendent.

You can have your acerbic and perpetually indignant Jon Stewart. My love for Stephen is well known and documented on social media so I won’t elaborate on it here. (Except to say: Congressional testimony. Commencement speechBreaking character. Decent, thoughtful Catholicism.)

There are two big things that make Colbert who he is:

1. His father and two of his brothers died in a plane crash when he was 10 years old.

2. He discovered improvisation as a young man and continues to thrive on it.

Those things are related.

He unpacks that in the article.

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.

He doubles down on this point, quoting a letter JRR Tolkien wrote to a priest:

“‘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.

“It’s not the same thing as wanting it to have happened,” he said. “But you can’t change everything about the world. You certainly can’t change things that have already happened.

What Colbert is describing is saying “Yes-and,” of receiving what life offers and building on it, which is the basic rule of improv. Sam Wells calls this process over-accepting in his book Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics. When life deals us a hand, we can:

  • reject it (deny it)
  • accept it (acknowledge that it’s happened and live in it), or
  • over-accept it (take what’s happened and build on it, which in some ways requires making friends with it).

I don’t love over-accepting as a term, but I think Wells’s framework is right on.

Acceptance is not defeat. Acceptance is awareness.

Why am I so drawn to improv? It’s not because I want to join a ComedySportz troupe. I’m not really interested in performing improv at all. It’s because improv is the basic human task—to make something beautiful with what’s been given to you, and to leave life better than you found it, which is the “and.”

Colbert doesn’t connect the dots between life and improv in the article, but he nods in that direction with this quote, which is practically a koan: “The end product [of the show] is jokes, but you could easily say the end product is intention. Having intentionality at all times… The process of process is process.”

I’m also drawn to improv because it scares me. I’m really good at planning. Organizing. Anticipating several steps down the road and developing contingencies. You have to, to some extent. But life happens. Bombs drop into the lives of 10 year olds.

Monday’s blog post shared some of my struggle with saying Yes-and to a running injury–and yes, it’s a full-on stress fracture, which means 12 weeks of no running.

I could reject it: keep on running, and injure myself further.

I could accept it: stop running, rest, do what the doctor suggests, try not to lose too much ground. (I kept it together pretty well, but when the doctor said, “You’ll start running again 1/2 a mile at a time,” that’s when I started to cry.)

But I’m trying really hard to over-accept. I’m trying to LOVE it. If Colbert can use that word to describe a life without his father and brothers, I can use it to describe a silly three-month running hiatus. This morning I started a separate page on my mama runners Facebook group for those of us who are injured to support one another. I hope that will grow into something long-term. I’ll be writing about what I’m learning, maybe just for myself, maybe for a wider audience. And I don’t want to spend the next three months “not losing ground.” I want to gain ground–maybe not physically, but mentally and spiritually. I’m still exploring what that means–it will be a process.

Read the whole article. There’s a lot more there.

~

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7 thoughts on ““Joy Machine”: The Wisdom of Stephen Colbert

  1. Sarah Erickson

    I am not surprised at your tack of “over-accepting and loving” your current injury-hiatus from running. I wondered if your would be going there. Prayers continue. And you continue to amaze me.

    Reply
  2. Paul Carlson

    I am interested in this conversation about improvisation, mostly because I have been involved with it most of my life. In my case, improvisation is related to music and the piano. Though trained classically with a Master’s degree in piano, my natural language is improvisation. As a pastor for 20 years, I have used it in ministry in various ways. At the core of it is a question, I think: what do I do with the unknown? “What’s next” is the open field I have before me, waiting to unfold. My experience looks something like this: The presence of the open field of the unknown starts an adrenaline rush that keeps me in the moment for as long as the improv lasts. To do it, I can’t buckle under the fear. I don’t have time to ask too many questions. I have to react and follow the action, even though I am the one doing it. I have to trust and I have to remain aware. I bring my life experience to it (and in the case of music, considerable knowledge). Ultimately, I play my soul. Accidents or mistakes become creative opportunities, integrated into the story I am telling. There is lots of theology and spirituality in all this, perhaps because the unknown is ultimately all we have. Thanks for this thread on improv. I am enjoying it! And, of course, always good to hear from Colbert.

    Reply
    1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

      Thank you Paul!

      I’d love the chance to explore this with you further. I am musical but not very highly trained, and the musical side of improv is a real hole in my knowledge.

      By the way, there’s a Facebook group called The Theology of Improv if you’re interested in connecting that way. It’s not really active but folks do post articles and stuff.

      Reply
  3. Jennifer

    Wow–love the thing that you most wish had not happened. That’s a hard one to wrap my head around. Especially considering the magnitude of what it was for Colbert. I can see accepting it, I suppose, and moving forward, but to love it; I’m not sure I know what that means, or how it could be possible.

    Reply

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