(Original clip from King George VI's September 3rd, 1939 speech from the London Telegraph)
But Moses said to the Lord, “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” Then the Lord said to him, “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.”
Movies don't usually move me to tears, but after watching "The King's Speech," I cried all the way home. (As I joked on Facebook, generally a dog has to die for me to cry at a movie.)
I suspected this movie was more than "a movie about a king who stutters," but I wasn't sure what it would be about. What I can tell you now is, as best as I can tell, it's a movie about finding our "royal voice," and about being a person who helps others to find their "royal voices."
Bertie, the man who would become Britain's King George VI, had what appeared to be an impossible stammer. Only until his paths crossed with speech therapist Lionel Logue did he grow into his "royal voice." It's the story of the feelings we all have as "impostors" at times--Bertie seems to feel like an impostor despite his very real royal bloodline, and Lionel, although never posing as a "real doctor," and insisting on being called Lionel, has the real threat of being "exposed" as the amateur actor and elocutionist that he is, who sort of "fell into" speech therapy because of the Great War. I found myself equally identifying with both characters in that sense.
But mostly, this is a story about overcoming the deep and hidden fear that we can't always identify and don't always understand. Lionel tells Bertie that "he no longer has to be afraid of what he feared at age five." Modern psychology teaches us that many of our fears and anxieties have their roots in a period from about age four to seven, even if the "trigger" for them comes much later. They come from a period where, educational development-wise, we are moving from "magical" thinking to a more concrete operational kind of thinking. They can be equally rooted in major trauma or seemingly minor traumas--in fact, to develop that "fright, flight, or fight" mechanism, we probably need those tramas to affect us to some degree. It's just that they sometimes end up having pathological manifestations.
But there are places in all of our lives that, like Moses, we must live up to the challenges of who we are called to be.
In fact, fear seems to be something the Bible addresses quite frequently. I did a quick search on the Oremus Bible Browser with three phrases. In the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, the phrase, "Do not be afraid" appears 59 times. "Do not fear" appears 43 times, and we see "Do not lose heart" three times, for a grand total of 105 times. Jesus himself accounts for thirteen of those times, and Paul accounts for three. It's safe to say that many Biblical authors found it a topic worth discussing.
It's been said by many people that the opposite of love is not hate, but fear. I would contend it is perhaps one of the major ways (if not the most major way) we find ourselves feeling apart from God's love. Like Bertie, this is where "community" comes in. We discover in the course of the movie that Bertie feels isolated in more ways than his speech. He was abused by a nanny. He was switched from using his "bad" left hand to his "good" right hand. He was placed in painful metal braces to correct being knock-kneed. Then on top of that, was all the formality heaped on him that British social protocol demanded of and for the monarchy. Part of how Lionel helps him is by broaching some boundaries in that last category. That's a tricky one. Generally, boundaries are healthy things. But overly rigid boundaries become prisons of our own making. It reminds me of all the times in the Gospels that there is "the law" and there is what is "beyond the law." We often have a hard time grasping that one.
Another thing that stood out for me is that Bertie's stammer disappears when he sings, when he speaks with loud music running through his head, and when he gets angry and explodes into fits of cursings.
I think back in my own life at a "same but different" phenomenon. Although I am not troubled with a "speech impediment" in the typical sense, at times, traumas that blunted my feelings can cause me to be "unable to speak directly," and cause nervous tics to emerge. My family used to refer to this as my "starting to go around the barn." When I became tense or anxious, I began to start to speak more vaguely and indirectly, and would become trapped in what would be interpreted as "lies," when in reality I was just not able to explain my feelings, or I felt trapped to spit out a partial answer that would get people off my back. I learned that saying nothing, looking guilty, and staring at my shoes--even if it led people to believe I did something I did not do--allowed things to blow over faster than if I stood up for myself.
Then would also come the nervous tics--grunting, grimacing, and repeated throat clearing--that once again would be interpreted as "lying." Even when the situation was over, the tics would remain for a spell--usually for a few days, but rarely for weeks or even months. The longer periods led to doctor visits. But for some reason, the doctor always felt "reassuring" to me. Sometimes I wonder if it was part of what drew me to medicine.
I still have flare-ups of the tics now and then, but they seem to subside much sooner. In fact, I learned that my practices of contemplative prayer seem to soothe them.
But somewhere down the line, like Bertie, I learned that another way to get them to abate--and to truly say what I felt--was to become angry and explode into a torrent of cursing. It's probably part of how I learned to be an effective and imaginative curser.
Then...there are other times that I am the Lionel in this story. Because of my experiences of "being the Bertie," I learned that someone who can withstand those behaviors in others and respond with love and compassion can be invaluable. It only becomes pathological when one starts needing to be approved by that person. But one of the roles I have often played in the lives of others is to be the sounding board when others feel bound in their own "speech impediments." Granted, I need to improve there on the topics that still hook me, but in the ones that don't, I have been thanked many times by people for "being allowed to vent," and still being able to respond to them in love.
When, in our lives, are we called to be Bertie? When are those moments when we must rise above our various "speech impediments" and speak with the honor and grace of the royal person that God has placed inside our stammering, stuttering selves?
Likewise, when are we called to be Lionel? When are we called to go the extra mile so someone else can find the royal person inside themselves? When are we called to befriend someone in an unconventional way? How do we know when we are doing such things for the right reasons as opposed to dysfunctional ones?
Again, I think the answer lies in the movie.
Bertie admits to Lionel early on that his thoughts do not stutter. In fact, he tells this to Lionel in a quite irritated tone of voice--the "Duh, you fool, everyone knows that," tone of voice.
My guess is that "non-stuttering" voice can also be interpreted as "the small still voice of God."
If we truly listen for the "small still voice," we will discover it doesn't falter. Lionel tells Bertie he can cure anyone who wants to be cured. Likewise, I believe God will speak to anyone who cares to listen.
I find myself being reminded again and again of the Frederick Buechner quote that adorns my friend Elizabeth's blog masthead: "Finally, I suspect that it is by entering that deep place inside us where our secrets are kept that we come perhaps closer than we do anywhere else to the One who, whether we realize it or not, is of all our secrets the most telling and the most precious we have to tell."
When we lay our secrets on the altar, we will often discover it results in a great improvement in our hearing and our speech. Not only will we hear the voice of the Almighty, we will speak more effectively, and hear the speech of the voices in our own community more clearly. In that, we can become royal voices heralding the Kingdom of God.