For comedian Stephen Colbert, the date September 11th carries even deeper significance than it does for most Americans of his generation. On that day, when Colbert was ten years old, Eastern Airlines Flight 212 crashed into a muddy cornfield outside of Charlotte, NC, skidding for hundreds of feet before bursting into flames. 72 of the 82 passengers died, including Colbert’s father and two of his older brothers.
The tragedy marked Colbert, and as a child he internalized the pain of the experience. In an interview with Oprah, he describes how the sense of loss became part of his identity—something lodged deep within him that no one else could fully understand. When he left home for college, Colbert found himself with more time alone (he grew up as the youngest of 11 children), and he struggled to come to terms with the tremendous sadness associated with the death of his father and brothers. During his freshman year, he lost weight at an alarming rate, dropping from 185 to 135 pounds, on account of his depressed state of mind.
Yet Colbert does not claim to have become a comedian in order to hide his pain. Instead, he has learned to see pain as a blessing. It has taught him to know joy, to draw strength from love, and to cherish what truly matters in life.
How to Find the Benefit in Every Bad Experience
It’s commonly said that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Life teaches otherwise. Many times bad experiences leave us angry, confused, hurt, or depressed. Adversity threatens to put us in a weak and frail condition—like Stephen Colbert’s skeletonlike frame after his freshman year of college. It’s not adversity itself—but your response to adversity—that can strengthen you. Adversity doesn’t necessarily make you stronger, but it’s guaranteed to change you. It’s up to you whether it makes you bitter or better.
How can you respond to hardships so that they build resilience instead of breeding self-doubt? What can you do so that your suffering develops maturity rather than simply draining your hope? How can you respond creatively to difficulties instead of reacting to them with a critical spirit?
1) See optimism as a choice
Optimism is not a personality trait limited to a few fortunate people. While everyone has a natural bent toward either cheerfulness or melancholy, anyone can choose optimism. However, it’s important to realize that optimism will not automatically change the reality of your situation. It’s not like “the Force” in Star Wars, magically bending the laws of nature. What optimism does change is your attitude and outlook. Optimism is seeing life accurately, but with a predisposition to actively look for, believe, and anticipate the best possible outcome in every situation.
2) Immerse yourself in positivity
When adversity strikes, you’re doomed if you try to negotiate the pain on your own. You need to find something to anchor you from life’s storms. In these moments, it’s vitally important to hang around upbeat people and to draw inspiration from faith.
Stephen Colbert cites the example of his mother and his Catholic faith as sources of his strength when dealing with adversity. “I’m not bitter about what happened to me as a child, and my mother was instrumental in keeping me from being so. She taught me to be grateful for my life regardless of what that entailed, and that’s directly related to the image of Christ on the cross and the example of sacrifice that he gave us. What she taught me is that the deliverance God offers you from pain is not [the absence of] pain — it’s that the pain is actually a gift.”
3) See adversity as life’s way of teaching you lessons and deepening your character.
One of the lessons Stephen Colbert drew from tragedy is that “joy is not the same thing as happiness.” Whereas happiness is a passing mood dependent on circumstance, joy is an enduring quality shaped by choice. “Joy can be hard,” Colbert confesses, but he has decided to view life as a comedy rather than as tragedy—searching for its humor and sharing its laughter. He keeps a card on his desk to remind him of the divine nature of joy: “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.”
Questions to Consider
How have you found joy in the midst of hardship? What helped you to choose an optimistic attitude?