Stephen Colbert on radical acceptance and steering toward fear

Stephen Colbert will be taking over David Letterman’s old slot on The Late Show soon. This GQ profile of Colbert by Joel Lovell is so good.

The writer goes much deeper than Colbert’s take on comedy and television. Colbert’s father and two of his brothers were killed in a plane crash when he was a 10-year-old. He ended up channeling that pain in a profound way.

From the article:

He said he trained himself, not just onstage but every day in life, even in his dream states, to steer toward fear rather than away from it. “I like to do things that are publicly embarrassing,” he said, “to feel the embarrassment touch me and sink into me and then be gone. I like getting on elevators and singing too loudly in that small space. The feeling you feel is almost like a vapor. The discomfort and the wishing that it would end that comes around you. I would do things like that and just breathe it in.” He stopped and took in a deep yogic breath, then slowly shook his head. “Nope, can’t kill me. This thing can’t kill me.”… And then he said, “Obviously there’s something defensive about it. What you’re doing is sipping little bits of arsenic so that you can’t be poisoned by the rest of your discomfort. You’re Rasputin-ing your way through the rest of your life.”

This is classic Stoicism. Face the pain. Embrace the obstacle.

He had an improv teacher who challenged students to “love the bomb”, to relish failure and use it as fuel to make you better.

And Colbert took that lesson well beyond the mere embarrassment of screwing up on stage:

 “ ‘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.” –Stephen Colbert

Why resist what has happened? Time travel is not an option. Radical acceptance is.

It’s been ten years since my mother died. I can’t say so clearly, as Colbert does, that “I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.” But I can be grateful for what I had in my 41 years with my mom and what I still hold on to, not only from memories of her but also from how her loss has challenged me and hopefully given me gifts and graces and perspective that I otherwise would not have.

The article concludes powerfully:

“ ‘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.”

The next thing he said I wrote on a slip of paper in his office and have carried it around with me since. 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.”

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