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Stephen Colbert, Admiral Stockdale, and the Present Moment

While the God who speaks sometimes from the ceiling of Comedian Stephen Colbert’s television studio may not exactly be Vatican-sanctioned, Colbert himself has periodically shared comments that reveal some pretty heavy-duty Catholic thinking.

For example, he explained frankly to CNN’s Anderson Cooper that “it is a gift to exist, and with existence comes suffering.”

Colbert made this remark last summer, before the coronavirus. And yet it suggests one of the greatest gifts that Catholic thinking may have to offer the country in this difficult moment, as we chafe under the burdens of a pandemic, political tensions, and the racism so stubbornly embedded in our institutions’ DNA.

Colbert’s reflection on the inevitability of suffering came in a conversation in which he and Cooper discuss the deaths of close relatives that marked their early years–Colbert’s loss of his father and two brothers in a plane crash when he was ten, and the deaths of Cooper’s father and brother, also when Cooper was quite young. While many of us have not experienced such ruptures, our individual and collective losses to COVID and to the economic and ethical crises of our day are mounting. And it is likely that more of us are carrying around a daily sense of suffering.

Suffering is an uncomfortable place for Americans. We have an entire economy built on products to make our lives easier. We have a national assumption that if there has to be struggle, it should produce progress–that we are, daily, creating a “more perfect union.” To suffer, or to feel that we are doing anything other than constantly progressing, is profoundly disturbing–as if we are violating our very nature.

Yet routinely taking a moment to accept that we are suffering–and that it is not likely to go away soon–may help us better handle the challenges of this moment. Management analyst and author Jim Collins has embraced a secular version of this idea in what many know as the Stockdale Paradox, the mindset that helped Admiral James Stockdale survive seven years of captivity and torture during the Vietnam War. In noting that optimists were less likely to survive those horrific conditions, Stockdale explains to Collins, “You must never ever confuse, on the one hand, the need for absolute, unwavering faith that you can prevail despite those constraints with, on the other hand, the need for the discipline to begin by confronting the brutal facts, whatever they are. We’re not getting out of here by Christmas.”

Since it is unlikely that we will get out of stay-at-home restrictions, illnesses and death caused by the virus, the exacerbating effects of inequality, and racism all by this coming Christmas, the discipline to confront the facts of where we are may equip us to manage those facts better. Partnership Principal Molly Smith reflected on a related notion in our interview with her on leading in uncertainty, when she noted that one of the crucial steps for managing the sudden shift to distance learning this spring was to recognize things schools could no longer control–like who is walking around the room when kids are trying to learn–so that teachers and leaders could focus on what we could control.

Catholic ethicist Bryan Massingale, S.J., discusses a deeper reckoning with difficult reality in Racial Justice in the Catholic Church. He talks of “blues hope,” and quotes fellow Catholic thinker James Cone, who says “‘The blues are an expression of fortitude in the face of broken existence.’” Such a hope, Massingale shares, is one of the many gifts the Church as a whole would do well to understand that Black Catholic and Christian traditions have to offer.

To look at the world in a Catholic way is, then, regardless of one’s background, to sing the blues–to recognize that horrible things are happening and to face them squarely to a beat that stirs something in us to move amid minor chords, whether those horrible things are happening to us, to those we love, or to the wider human family with whom our salvation is inextricably linked.

Some Catholics’ excessive glorification of suffering in the past is the stuff of legend–and of fantastic Monty Python skits like the one on self-flagellation. We should not recognize suffering just to surrender to it–and not because that form of masochism can just get creepy. An “offer it up” consolation, which offers no hope of improvement, has been used to rationalize unholy oppression for generations, particularly of women. As a people who believe that all lives are a gift from God, allowing suffering that we could prevent isn’t worship; it is desecration.

I certainly hope all contemporary Catholic schools offer our students a vision of life more focused on joy and empowerment than some previous periods in Catholic culture. But we still keep a crucifix in every classroom we hope to return to–and not just a cross, but crucifix, with Jesus nailed up right there above the whiteboard.

No matter how good things get–and we hope they get so much better for our students–we would be misinforming them if we didn’t remind them always what Jesus teaches us by example, and what Stephen Colbert explained to Anderson Cooper: “The bravest thing you can do is to accept with gratitude the world as it is.”

As we fight to keep Catholic schools open, particularly those serving families who have suffered more from the coronavirus and its economic effects, it makes sense to ask ourselves what Catholic “stuff” is so worth having that we’d work this hard to have schools animated by it. A visceral, blues-hope-in-the-bones acknowledgement of suffering is by no means the only Catholic “thing” that is valuable right now for us to recognize ourselves and pass on to children. But it is, as Stephen Colbert demonstrates, pretty important for being fully human, particularly in times like these that our children are navigating with us now.

Beth Blaufuss is Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at Partnership Schools.