Life is beautiful. Life is hard.
Even the most successful people endure pain. Even the happiest and best-adjusted sometimes feel sorry for themselves.
I'm thinking about those simple truths because I'm thinking about Stephen Colbert.
You might know Colbert from his work as the host of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on CBS, or perhaps from his earlier show, The Colbert Report on Comedy Central. Or perhaps from his other work as a comedian.
However, you might not know some of the tragedies he's endured during his life.
Largest among them, it would seem, is that when he was 10 years old, he lost his father and two of his brothers when they were killed in a plane crash.
I can't even imagine. Given how funny Colbert can be now, it makes me think of a quote by the late Steve Allen: "Comedy is tragedy plus time."
But now, there's another quote to focus on. It's a new one, and one I hope people will remember.
It comes from a wide-ranging interview that Anderson Cooper--who has endured some tragedy of his own--did recently with Colbert, in which he asked Colbert about living with painful memories.
The exchange, which has now gone viral (I've embedded it below), goes like this:
Cooper: "You told an interviewer that you have learned to--in your words--'love the thing that I most wish had not happened.' You went on to say, 'What punishments of God are not gifts?' Do you really believe that?"
Colbert: "Yes. It's a gift to exist, and with existence comes suffering. There's no escaping that."
It's not what people might often expect to hear from a mainstream comedian on network television. Colbert continued, speaking specifically of his father's and brothers' deaths:
I don't want it to have happened. I want it to not have happened, but if you are grateful for your life, which I think is a positive thing to do, not everybody is--and I am not always--but it's the most positive thing to do, then you have to be grateful for all of it.
You can't pick and choose what you're grateful for.
So, what do you get from loss? You get awareness of other people's loss, which allows you to connect with that other person, which allows you to love more deeply and to understand what it's like to be a human being, if it's true that all humans suffer.
There's a lot in that, but I think Colbert provided his own, best summary with the 10-word passage I've emphasized above: "It's a gift to exist, and with existence comes suffering."
Literally every scientific study I've ever found on happiness talks about practicing gratitude.
But what Colbert talks about here goes beyond that. It's a holistic acceptance and gratefulness that I've rarely seen articulated. And while I'm fortunate not to have lost loved ones as he did, I think I can understand it.
Of course there are bad things that have happened in my life. Some were very painful.
But the easiest way for me to kind of synthesize this with Colbert is to ask: Without them, would I be who I am today?
I suppose it's possible I'd be a person in a better position, or a worse one--but would I be me? Would I be with my wife? Would I be the father to my daughter?
Would I have written this article and had the privilege of holding your attention for a little bit?
And if I'm grateful for all of that, how can I try to carve out the memories I don't like so much--the kids who bullied me in eighth or ninth grade, the unlucky financial decisions I made, or the mistakes I made in relationships that didn't turn out for the best?
You have your own bad memories to fit in that framework. But can you find a way to be grateful for them?
Perhaps it's easier if you focus on the last part of Colbert's quote--about how suffering is also a gift because it lets you connect more deeply with other people. You've suffered, so you can better understand their suffering.
Gratitude, human connection, relationships. Literally, these are the bedrock of happiness. They're incredibly difficult to achieve. Heck, it's hard even just to articulate them.
And that's what makes it all so poignant. Here's the video:
You said "what punishment of gods are not gifts. Do you really believe that?" @andersoncooper, choking back tears, asks Stephen Colbert, as they discuss grief.-- Anderson Cooper 360° (@AC360) August 16, 2019
"Yes," replies the comedian. "It's a gift to exist and with existence comes suffering. There's no escaping that." pic.twitter.com/p5rUUhZKxq