Very important PSA for Stephen Colbert fans who do not live in the USA
If you see an edition of Time magazine in the shops this week which looks like this:
you should buy it because on page 66, this glorious chap appears:
I’m a bit too excited about this and have literally rushed home from the supermarket to write this. I haven’t checked if anyone else has also spotted this so massive apologies if I’m stealing anyone’s thunder.
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 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.”
…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. 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.”
I am not a person of faith myself. Raised Catholic, I can no longer believe in God in that way, though I believe there is a transcendent and unspeakable dignity and value in our fleeting little lives. But I love what Colbert says here. I think we need to be careful around the idea of viewing God’s punishments as gifts, since this idea is often used by those in positions of power to make those being oppressed or abused by religious institutions or individuals feel as if they need to accept the horrible and horrifying things that are being done to them. There is a difference between the punishments of God and the monstrosities of human behavior. My being trans, which at times in my life has been the thing that I most wish hadn’t happened–I once longed above all else to have time somehow magically change course so that I had been assigned female at birth–was a “punishment (or gift) of God,“ if it was anything, and I try to view it with some measure of gratitude.
In All About Love, bell hooks quotes from James Baldwin, “I do not mean to be sentimental about suffering–but people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are.”
Writing about Jacob’s encounter with an angel, hooks says:
Rather than letting the angel go when light comes, Jacob demands and is given a blessing. Significantly, he cannot receive the blessing without first letting fear go and opening his heart to be touched by grace… It should reassure us that the blessing the angel gives to Jacob comes in the form of a wound.
Woundedness is not a cause for shame, it is necessary for spiritual growth and awakening…In Coming Out of Shame, Gershen Kaufman and Lev Raphael contend: “Shame is the most disturbing emotion we ever experience directly about ourselves, for in the moment of shame we feel deeply divided from ourselves…At the same moment that we feel most disconnected, we long to embrace ourselves once more, to feel reunited. Shame divides us from ourselves, just as it divides us from others, and because we all yearn for reunion, shame is deeply disturbing.” Shame about woundedness keeps many people from seeking healing. They would rather deny or repress the reality of hurt. In our culture we hear a lot about guilt but not enough about the politics of shame. As long as we feel shame, we can never believe ourselves worthy of love.
We are all wounded at times. A great many of us remain wounded in the place where we would know love… The story of Jacob reminds us that embracing our wound is the way to heal.
I don’t think I understood before I read that just how much a bullshit feeling of shame about being transgender had been part of my gender dysphoria for so long, part of what was dividing me from myself and from others. Nor did I understand the gift of woundedness, how that meant that I was healing, coming through the shame and really feeling for the first time in a long time that I was worthy of love.
Still I struggle with this sometimes. I’m sure that to some extent, I always will. But I’m getting better at recognizing that I’m pretty fucking awesome in some ways, and that some of that is because of the things I have suffered, and the perspective that suffering has given me. As I wrote in my recent piece about the game Life Is Strange:
When I was younger, I was obsessed with the concept of alternate timelines, because I felt certain that I was trapped in the wrong one. The fact that I was trans, which I had no way of discussing with anyone who would be accepting or understanding, seemed like a cosmic mishap, and I was sure that in the “correct” timeline there was a version of me who had been assigned female at birth and who was going to middle school and making friends and living her life without being smothered under the weight of having to pretend she was a boy. I envied her so much, and every night in bed I hoped against hope that somehow in the morning I’d wake up in that timeline, the cosmic mishap corrected, and be able to live my life as the person I felt I really was. I would have given anything to change it.
But what Life Is Strange acknowledges is that a Carolyn who lived that life and had the formative experiences and the memories that would have come with it would be a completely different person from the Carolyn I am today. Even though nothing has caused me more pain and confusion and isolation than my being trans, that was the path that was set before me, and if somehow I had strayed from it, I might have become a person that the person I am now wouldn’t like very much. I might not even recognize that person as myself. For better and for worse, the life I’ve lived is what has made me who I am.
I don’t believe in fate at all. I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason. Way too much bad shit happens to good people for me to ever believe that. But I do believe that there are things that eat away at us that we cannot change, things we just have to accept–that job you didn’t get, that person who didn’t love you back–and that sometimes it’s up to us whether we spend our lives resenting those things or we try to find some significance in them, some meaning and strength that we can take with us. Sometimes the things we wish so badly that we could change, we really shouldn’t. Sometimes those things make us who we are.
Of course the goal is not to dwell on the wound, not to linger in the place of suffering forever, but to embrace the wound as a way to heal, to find value in the painful things we cannot change, to love the thing that we most wish had not happened.
The central tension in [Colbert’s] life, he said, is between being a ‘reasonably friendly, good-at-a-cocktail-party guy’ and walking around the world feeling like he’s not quite a part of it. “I’m a very uncomfortable person,” he said. “I really like people, and I also don’t always know what to do with them.… I have always had an eclectic roster of friends, but there’s something about my work that speaks to a deep discomfort with being in society.”
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.”
I apologized for the lack of subtlety and asked him how much he connected that urge to his training, and how much he felt it had roots that went deeper into his life. Was it at one point purely a defense mechanism against the pain he’d experienced?
He raised an eyebrow. “I don’t know, Doctor. You tell 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.”
Oh Los Angeles, You Are a Nowhere Place, But In My Mind, So Is Everywhere
I’ve been thinking a lot about what to say about Los Angeles. I wasn’t happy there, but I was even more unhappy when I returned to New York and, straight off the red eye, immediately began thinking about the implications of killing myself, and whether or not it would really matter. “I would be sad for like a few days,” my sister told me. “Your funeral would be a great opportunity to take some hot selfies,” her friend, who was on FaceTime with us, added.
Los Angeles, I believe, has changed a lot since the first time I lived there in 2006. Back then, I was 23. My boss, Gregory Colbert, flew me out so I could help get him milkshakes and run the information desk at the Nomadic Museum, the multi-million dollar shrine to his photographs that was built by Shigeru Ban, and sponsored by Rolex. I lived at the Hotel California where every night, terrified to be alone, I slept with the help of Ambien.
I told my best friend Sadie, when we walked past the Hotel California this trip, that I was so immature then. I was lazy. I wouldn’t eat certain things. I rented myself a car I couldn’t afford because no one in Los Angeles walked, and I wanted to be like everyone else even though I didn’t need to drive anywhere.
Every night, I struggled over what to eat. I complained that everything in California was in a strip mall, and all of the food came from chain restaurants.
Additionally, I was poor. Paying for the rental car and my rent back in New York ate up 95% of my $35,000-a-year salary. I couldn’t try out any of the cool restaurants Gregory and his celebrity friends ate at, like the Ivy or the Lobster, because they were too expensive. I didn’t ask dates to take me there because I didn’t want to owe them sexual favors afterwards.
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.