“People’s Suffering is Sacred”: Colbert on Suffering, Faith

Exactly one week ago I was sitting in a yurt at the farm of Jacob Kulju and Kerstin Hansen, swatting mosquitoes and listening intently to the twelve student leaders of the VISION program at the University of St. Thomas speak about their spiritual journeys.  I was invited to join them during their leadership formation retreat as part of my work with the Contemplative Leadership for Justice program.  I am still digesting this experience.  How frequently does one get the opportunity to listen to a group of twenty-something’s talk about their deepest spiritual struggles and aspirations?  Although each student leader has his or her own distinctive story, one theme emerged from that discussion and the workshop the following morning that has stuck with me – suffering.  Everyone experiences suffering.  But not everyone experiences a safe space – or community, or relationship – where they can express that suffering, and have it heard and honored so that it can begin to heal.  But one thing became very clear from my time with this group of inspiring students.  It is often the experience and awareness of suffering that opens one to seek something deeper, something more meaningful, in life.

The VISION yurt at night

The VISION yurt at night

This is a theme that I hear often from people who come to our events at the Project for Mindfulness & Contemplation, or to workshops on Centering Prayer.  It is the experience of suffering that induces a pause – a sacred pause (I borrow this phrase from Tara Brach‘s Radical Acceptance)- from which a desire to explore the human spirit emerges.  And contemplation is essentially nothing more nor nothing less than the search to understand the human experience of conscious awareness, including its blissful highs, its terrible lows, and its numbing mundanity.

Enter Stephen Colbert.  The irony in his recent interview with GQ Magazine is quite rich.  Who would expect that one of the funniest people in America today – on the verge of taking over the Tonight Show – would express with such exquisite profundity and humility his own personal struggles with death and loss, and how that relates to his Catholic faith, his sense of the presence of God as joy, and his desire to enter into the complexity of life as a never-ending process?

In response to Joel Lovell’s question about why he doesn’t seem bitter about suffering the loss of his father and two siblings to a plane crash at the age of ten, Colbert responds that it was the example of his mother that kept him from slipping into cynicism:

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?

(paraphrased by Lovell)

Colbert continues, referring back to his acting coach who taught him to love the bomb – that is, to embrace the moment when you feel like you are failing:

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…[At the age of 35] I went, ‘Oh, I’m grateful. Oh, I feel terrible.’ I felt so guilty to be grateful. But I knew it was true.

One of the things that I found myself discussing in the VISION yurt with those twelve students was my experience of losing my cousin Ben to brain cancer when I was eighteen.  I wouldn’t say that I think about Ben every day.  But I do think about Ben every time something profound or important happens in my life.  Why?  Because Ben was given a year to live at the age of 9, and he lived until he was 19.  (I’m convinced it was for sheer love of life, and especially love of other people, that he continued to defy the odds for so long.)  Because people would come over to the farm where Ben lived in order to comfort him and his family during his dying process, and he would comfort them.  Ben is that example of suffering for which I am most grateful, because he showed me how to keep one’s heart open even while suffering and dying.

So, perhaps our culture’s fascination with mindfulness and contemplative practices is really an innate and implicit desire to find some new ways to lean in when things get difficult – to run toward the roar.  To keep our hearts open to the mystery of being human, even when suffering threatens the very roots of what we find most valuable and meaningful.  Perhaps people like Stephen Colbert are living out one of the most fascinating (and hilarious) forms of witness to the idea that “Joy is the most infallible sign of the existence of God” that we can find in our culture today.  Perhaps we all have those moments where we experience something sacred like listening to those twelve VISION student leaders, or spending time with a joyfully dying cousin, or witnessing our country’s ongoing struggles with racism, that are asking us to take one of those sacred pauses?  What will we find if we stay in that (uncomfortable) pause?  Well, that is an answer that cannot be predetermined but can only be lived into.  But perhaps Colbert should have the last word here, because I think he is right that no matter what else we might find, we will be mystified.

I’m mystified, I’ll tell you that.

And whatever comes next, it will surprise us.  I’ll tell you that.

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