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‘At Every Moment, We Are Volunteers’

Stephen Colbert and the blessing of the Bomb
‘At Every Moment, We Are Volunteers’

My wife told me a couple of days ago that I simply had to read the new GQ profile of Stephen Colbert. I had it cued up, ready to go this afternoon, when I received the same suggestion from a reader. So I did … and wow. Excerpts:

… the thing I’ve been thinking about the most since my time with Colbert is loss. The losses he’s experienced in his life, yes, but really the meaning we all make of our losses. Deaths of loved ones, the phases of our children’s lives hurtling by, jobs and relationships we never imagined would end. All of it. Among other things, our lives are compendiums of loss and change and what we make of it. I’ve never met anyone who’s faced that reality more meaningfully than Stephen Colbert. I suppose, more than anything, that’s what this story is about.

Colbert tells the reporter that the most important thing he learned in his actor’s training is that you have to learn to love “the bomb” — that is, failing on stage, in front of all those others. He has learned to love the Bomb. I have not.

As most people who know Colbert’s story are aware, he was raised in a deeply Catholic home, and when he was 10, his father and two of his brothers died in a plane crash. Today, Colbert credits his mother with showing him to how suffer without being destroyed by it.

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.”

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.”

Read the whole thing. Seriously, if you read nothing else today, make it this Colbert story. I can’t say enough good things about it. What an admirable man. Writer Joel Lovell, you have done me a great kindness today with this story of yours. Thank you.

A number of you readers — some of you personal friends, some I only know from reading you on this blog, and others who have never commented on this blog, but who felt compelled by kindness to reach out to me this week — have written to say you can’t imagine how hard the impending death of my father must be for me and my mom to go through. That’s true for my mom, who has been married to this man for over half a century, but as I reminded her the other day, she buried her daughter, and is still here. She’s strong. She can do this. She has endured worse.

For me, it’s not hard, or rather, it’s not nearly as hard as all my life I have imagined it would be. I write you from his bedside, watching him sleep. I keep an eye on him, because if his head slips down a bit, I want to be able to hop up and adjust the pillow for his comfort. There are a thousand other more pleasant places to be right now, but none more filled with meaning, and a kind of, well, joy, a joy that comes from gratitude, and from a sense of knowing that I am exactly where I am supposed to be, doing what I am supposed to do.

Please don’t misunderstand me here. I hate watching my dad suffer like this. The day he finally goes to God will be a day of joy only in that it will mean release for him from this body that has been disintegrating slowly for years. And though he is afraid now to leave the rest of us, to think of the reunion I imagine he will have with his daughter Ruthie and his mother, both of whom he has mourned intensely, makes me happy. Death is loss, but death — a good death — can also be gain. That is my faith, anyway. I sleep now in the bed next to his hospital bed. I woke up early this morning, rolled out of bed, sat down in the wooden chair next to him, and quietly said prayers. “Glory to God,” I said, for the fact that he has given us another day with my dad. And if it should happen tomorrow, or sometime in the next couple of weeks, that I roll out of bed and find that he has passed away in the night, that will be my prayer as well: “Glory to God.”

This does not seem strange at all to me now, but there was a time not long ago when I could not have conceived in this or a thousand universes that I would be able to type these words from what will be my father’s deathbed. For most of my adult life, this image is how I imagined I would take the news of my dad’s death. He was the ground beneath my feet, even when I was running as far away from him as my feet would take me.

You know what happened next: a bomb went off. My sister Ruthie’s death was a bomb, but it was not the bomb. The bomb was returning home expecting that everything would be different between my father and me, only to discover that it was not, and never would be — and that I was powerless to change that fact. This was my Bomb, and it very nearly took me out.

But I survived it. I survived it because God, in His mercy, introduced me to a poet who had been blown up himself, and who came to understand that he would never be able to expect justice for what had happened to him. But the poet — Dante Alighieri — discovered something greater than justice. He discovered love. He found that the bomb blew away all the things in his life that kept him from seeing what could not be destroyed, the eternal things, and building a new life on that foundation.

I wrote a book about how Dante saved my life, though of course I really mean how God used Dante to save my life. If you’ve been reading me for any length of time, you know that story, so I won’t go into it here. What startles me — if “startles” is the word for an experience so profound and uncanny — is that right now, in these final, agonizing days of Daddy’s life, I am living out the blessing of the Bomb. I expected these to be the worst, most frightening days of my life, but in fact they are among the most blessed.

I have been with my dad for most of this week, and will be with him until the end. During that time, I have watched a parade of visitors come and go. They can’t stay long, because he’s in and out of sleep, and sometimes they can’t see him at all, because he’s sleeping, but the point is, they came. I have seen so much active love and devotion shown to him by my mother, a close friend, and the hospice nurse. I have done what I can, and it has been the least of any of them, but the blessing is to have been here at all. I read to him the Psalms, I pray with him and for him, and when he asks, I read to him from the Gospels. Late last night, my mom and I sat at his bedside, and did something we have rarely if ever done: we prayed together. Some things that needed to be said among us, were said. He told us that he was ready to go see Ruthie, and we told him he was free to go, that we would hold him in our hearts forever, that we knew he would be with God and praying for us, and that the bond of love we have as a family will survive death. In that moment, my father, my mother, and I were all at peace, for once, and in harmony. For the rest of my life, I will remember these days.

I’m reasonably healthy these days, but as you know, I haven’t always been since coming back. There is no way I would have chosen the grief and sickness I’ve been through for these past three and a half years, fighting the dragons that have dwelled between my father and me for most of our life together. But I did not know they would still be there, and I did not anticipate their ferocity. The battles were necessary. As Virgil told the pilgrim Dante — I paraphrase — “If you follow me, I will take you on a long, arduous, and even terrifying path, but you will find your way to safety; if you stay here, you will die and be devoured.” Dante chose to follow. And so did I, not out of any moral courage on my part, but because I knew what the alternative would be.

What if I had remained in Philadelphia after my sister died, and had received a phone call from my mother early this week telling me I needed to come home, because it’s getting close to the end? To think of the burdens I would have carried on that journey with me — the anger, the fear, the confusion, the interminable anxiety over injustice — all of it would have weighed me down so much that I would not have been able to take my eyes off the ground and look upon my father’s face. These days of peace and caritas would not have been possible. No way. To use Colbert’s phrasing, I would not have been able to accept my father’s death, but rather would have been defeated by it. I would not have been able to comfort him by rubbing his husk of a body with lotion, and to receive his thanks while knowing that the greater blessing was in what he was giving me. The gift of being able to walk side by side these difficult days with my father (and my mother) only comes to me because of the gift of pain — a pain that healed, a brokenness that mended.

As Colbert says, the past cannot be changed, nor can the present, not entirely. But your heart can change, if you want it to be, and that makes bearing the hurts of the past and the frustrations of the present possible. So when he says, “At every moment, we are volunteers,” I take that to mean, at least in part, that our free will means we are not fated to be defeated, but when our wills are united to the will of God, Who is love itself, all our defeats become victories. Dante taught me that. Yes, my church taught me that too, and so did my therapist, but above all, Dante Alighieri taught me that.

Others are teaching me too. Yesterday, sitting beside my dad as he slept, I read a Tolstoy short story, Alyosha the Pot, in which the hero is a simple peasant who does nothing but serve simply, and bear the burdens and expectations of others, never having anything for himself, not even the freedom to make his own life, and who dies young. Yet, he is the story’s hero. At first I didn’t understand this, but the more I thought about it, the more fully I grasped that meek Alyosha, a holy fool, lived out the Beatitudes. Alyosha was a plain man, but grateful for everything. The last line of the story: “He lay in wonderment, then stretched himself, and died.”

Not “he lay in anger at how unfairly he had been treated in life,” and not “he lay broken by the unfulfilled promise of his life,” or “he lay despairing over his life taken from him too young.” Had he done so, anyone would have understood it well, because Alyosha’s life was hard and unjust. But: “he lay in wonderment.”

Later in the night, I lay on my parents’ bed, reading, while my father slept in his hospital bed nearby. I lifted my eyes from the page to check his breathing, and saw my dad looking at me. I don’t know how long he had been watching me. Fixing me in his gaze, he pursed his thin, dry lips, and made a kiss, then closed his eyes to sleep again. And there I lay, in wonderment, and in gratitude.

Here is a key passage from a dialogue that my priest Father Matthew and I had, recounted in How Dante Can Save Your Life:

“I want justice. It’s not fair, the way they do me.”

“You want justice?” he said, chuckling. “What is justice? You have no right to expect justice. It’s nice if you get it, but if you don’t, that doesn’t release you from the commandment to love. The elder brother in the prodigal son story stood on justice, but his father stood on love.”

It was God’s will that I push through the pain, toward love, without the expectation of justice. And now look at what graces I have been given. This morning, I jumped up before daylight, because he was awake, and needed some more medicine.

“Is Hannah here?” he murmured. No, I said, today is Saturday, and she will be here from California later today.

“Oh,” he said, then drifted away again.

After caring for him, I laid back down and tried to go back to sleep, not quite sure what time it was. Suddenly I realized that it was actually Friday, not Saturday. And then I thought about how this week feels exactly like those times I’ve been in the hospital with the birth of my children, and immediately after bringing them home, when the needs of a weak and helpless soul dictate your hours, such that you lose track of time. But it’s a satisfying kind of tired, because you know something important and good is happening here, as tiring as it may be to serve.

“Thank you so much for what you do for me,” he said, in a voice that could barely be heard over the whoosh and hum of the oxygen machine.

“It’s my pleasure,” I said. “You’d do it for me.”

“I sure would.”

“You did do it for me, when I was a little boy, and was sick.” I remembered how comforting it was when my chest was full of congestion and misery, and his big rough hand would rub Vicks VapoRub into my chest at bedtime. The love that moved my father’s hands around my mucus-bound chest in my childhood, loosening the blockage and the fear, is the same as the love that moves my hands, wet with lotion, over the onion-skin paper of his aged belly, and down his spindly legs, like dowels wrapped with sandpaper, and it is the same — the very same! — as the love that moves the Sun and all the other stars.

In His will is our peace. Believe it.

The hands of my mother and father
The hands of my mother and father

UPDATE: I’m wondering if Stephen Colbert is a kind of real-life holy fool…



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