With graduation season upon us, David Zahl revisits Stephen Colbert’s 2011 commencement address at Northwestern University. An excerpt:
After I graduated from here, I moved down to Chicago and did improv. Now there are very few rules about improvisation, but one of the things I was taught early on is that you are not the most important person in the scene. Everybody else is. And if they are the most important people in the scene, you will naturally pay attention to them and serve them. But the good news is you’re in the scene too. So hopefully to them you’re the most important person, and they will serve you. No one is leading, you’re all following the follower, serving the servant. You cannot win improv.
And life is an improvisation. You have no idea what’s going to happen next and you are mostly just making things up as you go along. And like improv, you cannot win your life. Even when it might look like you’re winning…
In my experience, you will truly serve only what you love, because, as the prophet says, service is love made visible. If you love friends, you will serve your friends. If you love community, you will serve your community. If you love money, you will serve money. And if you love only yourself, you will serve only yourself, and you will have only yourself.
There is a sense in which all of us want what Colbert is describing: more acts of love and service in the world–more people doing what they love both for its own sake and the sake of their fellow citizens. You might say that we all want to be happy, and we are happy to the extent to which we have lost sight of the winning/losing spectrum–which also happens to be the extent to which we’ve lost sight of ourselves (or at least that part of us which is so helplessly caught up in justifying itself). The problem invariably comes when you talk about the How. How are people inspired to do good?
Does it happen through admonition and instruction? Or does it happen when those things are removed and/or allayed? Colbert seems to be in agreement on this issue with the man who executed his New Testament namesake. After all, when it comes to success, both inherited and achieved, the apostle Paul was clearly a “winner”. Yet in light of his conversion, Paul came to view those point tallies–indeed, the entire game itself–as a profound dead-end. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that he also spoke so beautifully about the fruit of the Spirit, that is, of the organic nature of life lived in the shadow of the cross–which is simply life lived from a place of gratitude rather than fear.