This is excerpted from the GQ cover story on August 17, 2015.
That day after he got back from Michigan, we eventually got around to the question of how it could possibly be that he suffered the losses he’s suffered [including his father and two brothers in a plane crash as a child] and somehow arrived here. It’s not just that he doesn’t exhibit any of the anger or open-woundedness of so many other comedians; it’s that he appears to be so genuinely grounded and joyful.
He sat silently for a while and then smiled. “Yeeeahhhh,” he said. “I’m not angry. I’m not. I’m mystified, I’ll tell you that. But I’m not angry.”
There were such depths in the way he said “mystified.”
It was hard to talk about these things, he said. “I want to answer in ways that are not pat. And so I want to take a moment and think of a way to answer that isn’t pre-packaged.”
There was a time when he’d done a lot of press for his old show, which inevitably entailed answering some version of this question over and over. And then he decided to stop, refusing even to do any exit interviews when The Colbert Reportcame to an end. “I can’t imagine why anyone wants to hear anything about me anymore,” he said. “This is not meant as resistance, or pejoratively. I’m just being honest.” And so the challenge was “to find a way to do press that isn’t just a carbonated version of a drink I brewed many, many years ago. Just throw effervescence into a drink I’ve already brewed.”
He didn’t have to do this. He was exhausted. He had so many other things to do that day, meetings stacked up for the next few hours, people peeking in through his office window hoping to grab a moment of his time. He could have certainly given a version of the answer he’s given before. Or he could have said, Come on, man, right now? Just let me eat my chicken with hot sauce in peace, will you?
Instead he said, “So my reaction when I hear that question 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. Byher 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.”
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.”
Consider that this is coming from a man who millions of people will soon watch on their televisions every night—if only there were a way to measure the virality of this, which he’ll never say on TV, I imagine, but which, as far as I can tell, he practices every waking minute of his life.
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.”
JOEL LOVELL is an editor for This American Life and a story editor at The Atavist.
Photo credit Sebastian Kim, GQ.