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Tuesday, March 5, 2024
The Observer

Let's learn from Stephen Colbert

I think we spend too much time wishing we could time travel. That probably sounds like an odd statement, but hear me out.

I can spend a lot of time analyzing the past. “Gosh, I wish I would have done...” or “Dang, it would have been so much better if…” or “I feel really bad that…” After a certain period of time, I become so wrapped up in the anger, frustration and hurt that I felt in the past that I time travel.  Before I know it, the memories of the past have taken over and made the past more real than my present.

This is, beyond a doubt, the reality of countless numbers of people who, in varying degrees and in many different stages of life, deal with these types of questions from the moment they wake up until the moment they go to bed.

So, if there is one thing that I have learned in my brief foray into ministry, it’s that we all have a relationship with our past. Sometimes we are able to deal with that relationship successfully. Other times, we need a little bit more help.

I think of all of this in light of a biography I just finished about the life of Stephen Colbert. Colbert has been in the news recently as he has closed-up shop on his Comedy Central show to move to CBS. He will be taking the late-night spot soon to be vacated by David Letterman.

I have followed Colbert’s career with great interest, and when a friend of mine brought home a book about his life, I wasted no time devouring its pages.

I can’t say I had any expectations that I would encounter such a moving story. But by the end, I was putting down the book impressed by Colbert’s example. And it’s funny — I can’t cite a particular moment that I found to be particularly moving. Rather, it was the composite of his life, the difficulties and the choices he made in response to those difficulties that I found particularly poignant.

One of eleven children, Colbert lost his dad and two brothers in an airline accident when he was ten. Although he became withdrawn and bullied, he eventually found his joy in theater and acting (later comedy) and never looked back. Friends described his natural intelligence and curiosity and how he learned to pour all of that into performing.

But sometimes, the tragedies of his past were too much. Once while doing a scene in acting school, Colbert got so angry that he nearly punched a fellow student. This prompted a teacher to say to Colbert that she would not teach him unless he got counseling.

And he did.

As he continued to work to develop as a performer, he realized that he enjoyed making other people laugh. After carrying around a heavy weight of sorrow, he sought to take matters into his own hands.

The stage gave him the space not only to confront the realities of sorrow, but to explore the intricacies of joy. And bit-by-bit, he discovered that he really liked to choose joy. He started to develop and hone a wonderful skill, the ability to find the humor and the joy in a myriad of situations, no matter how ridiculous.

Soon, this gave way to the birth of a new man, a man who made it his job to find the humor, the laughter and the joy in the midst of situations that seemed quite devoid of it.

This was why I was inspired. Colbert is a person whose life had appeared, during all the shows I watched, to have always been paved with joy. When I learned more, Colbert’s life helped me realize a deeper truth: no one’s life is paved with joy all the time. And most of the time, we have to choose it.

Like Colbert, we all have, or will have, tragedies and struggles. Like him, we may have moments of anger or sorrow. But these moments cannot define us.

Fortunately, we have a God who always offers us a helping hand.

Jesus calls us out of the quicksand of our past into the hope that he promises us in the present.  Do “what is right and just.” Or, as Matthew Kelly puts it: “Just do the next right thing.” Like Colbert, we have to give ourselves the space (and sometimes work really hard) to discover our joy, who God created us to be.

Too often, we get discouraged and define ourselves according to the labels of our past. But I heard once: “Forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past can be any different.” We must not disregard our past. Rather, like Colbert, we must allow it to guide our steps into the future.

Fortunately, Jesus has already shown us the way.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.