Message 51, “Cinematic Spirituality: The King’s Speech and Overcoming Our Fears”, 3-13-11

© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved

Service-Program, 03-13-11

A Pastor was once asked by his congregation to deliver an inspirational message on courage.  He thought about it a long while and, after much research and more reflection, he arrived at what he would say.  On the appointed Sunday, the congregation eagerly awaited the profound ideas he would speak.  He stood up and offered these words, “What is courage? — This is.”  And he promptly sat down without uttering another word!

In our search during March for spiritual insights from this year’s Best Picture nominated movies, I believe the film “The King’s Speech” offers some of the best.  Many critics have said the film is not so great in terms of its cinematic flourishes, its artistry or cinematography.  But, in my mind, the acting, the story and the restrained manner in which it was filmed all make it very, very good – certainly worthy of being Best Picture in 2010.

The movie is biographical and historical.  It traces the actual efforts of King George the Sixth to conquer a lifelong problem with stuttering and fear of public speaking.  The film depicts the cocooned life of royalty, the stiff-upper lip demands placed on British aristocracy and the historic crisis faced by Britain when its King abdicated the throne to marry a twice divorced American woman – all at a time when Germany and Adolf Hitler threatened the very existence of all Europe.

Bertie, as King George the Sixth was called, was crowned King after his brother gave up the throne and declared that he would pursue the woman he loved since, as King and head of the Church of England, he was unable to marry a divorced woman.

But Bertie was certainly no Knight in shining armor waiting in the wings to save the day.  He was the second son to a distant, demanding and demeaning father.  Born not to be heir to the throne but to live as a mere Prince, Bertie was raised not by his parents, whom he barely knew, but by harsh and unloving nannies.  He was essentially an abused child.  He was born with a knock kneed defect such that he wore leg braces into his teens – and thus the subject of cruel taunts.  Adding further insult, he was born left-handed and was forced by tutors to become right handed.  His father, King George the Fifth, famously stated: “My father was frightened of his mother, I was frightened of my father and I am damned well going to see that my children are frightened of me!”

Bertie stammered and stuttered from an early age.  His father railed at him to spit his words out, to act like a man and to be a proper royal.  In one infamous moment, Bertie was asked to give a speech opening London’s World Fair in 1926.  The speech was broadcast over the new media of radio.  His stutters, long pauses and a final inability to speak were painful to watch.   He was handicapped by sheer terror – of the public role forced upon him by his birth, his royal heritage and the demands of his an overly stern father.

And thus we have the basic set-up for the movie.  Bertie’s wife, concerned at her husband’s handicap and realizing he would be forced to speak even more as King, looked for experts to help.  None of them could.  She finally turned to Lionel Logue, a failed Shakespearean actor turned speech therapist and elocution teacher, who lacked any credentials as a therapist.  As a commoner and an Austrailian, Logue insisted that the Prince be treated in his shabby office, play by his unconventional rules of therapy and examine his past life of hurt and shame as the source of his fears and speech impediment.  Logue’s form of psychoanalysis and speech therapy worked.  Bertie improved – not fully conquering his stuttering but nevertheless facing his fears and slowly overcoming them with determination and Logue’s continued guidance.

In the climactic scene, King George the Sixth – Bertie, spoke to a frightened nation in need of their King’s reassuring words on the very day that England declared war on Germany.  He succeeded in a halting but effective manner.  His success helped to calm and rally Britain.  Indeed, the courage manifested in this speech was later shown by the King and his wife in the coming months when they refused to leave London while it was bombed by the German air force – killing thousands.  This shy, unassuming, stuttering King, stood as a symbol of the courageous English spirit at its darkest hour.

It is this theme, of overcoming fear, that I believe the movie speaks to us so eloquently.  All of us have had to struggle with fear in some form.  Indeed, as the famous author and playwright George Bernard Shaw once said, “In this world there is only one universal passion: fear.” But how do we overcome our fears which are human responses to what we think and perceive will happen to us in the future?  As we all know, reaction to fear is hard wired into us as a self-protective mechanism – the fight or flight response induced by a massive flooding of adrenaline into our bloodstreams.  The brain, sensing danger, alerts the adrenal glands to excrete its hormone and thus stimulate the body to action – run away or stand and fight.

Experts tell us that it is in our perceptions and thoughts of a given situation that fears arise.  We see a snake, for instance, and our mind tells us that they are potentially dangerous, they could bite or wrap themselves around us, and thus we react with emotion and fear.  If it is in our perception of what might happen to us, then experts tell us that treatment comes with cognitive change – we must alter our thoughts and perceptions that created the fear.  And we must be on guard not to be tricked by our worrisome thoughts – they are like con artists fooling us into believing what we think will happen to us is literal truth.

Our fears, therefore, so often exert their influence over our lives – holding us back from our potential.  Fear of intimacy and love too often prevent us from deep and meaningful relationship.  As we discussed last month, fears of singleness and independence cause many to pursue unhealthy relationships or to cling dependently on another.  Indeed, general fears of life, of adequacy and of fulfillment lead some to addictions – drowning their fears in alcohol or drugs.  For others, fear of conflict, hurt and pain lead to closeted, frustrated and often empty lives.   Facing our fears is essential for peace, meaning and purpose.  As one who still battles the pressing weight of fear, it is not just courage I need but a clear mind and a soul that yearns to change.

Therapists thus encourage people to keep an open mind about fearful thoughts.  We have to be honest and examine them with objectivity.  For instance, “Ok.  I see a snake.  Now, is it likely that the snake will attack me?  If so, what if I slowly move away from it?  Is the snake even dangerous to me?  Such thoughts are essential for they lead a person away from an immediate fight or flight scenario.  On a more personal level, if I fear intimacy, how is it that a close relationship will change my life?  How likely is it the other person will hurt me?    What are the possibilities for real joy that come from love?  Do the benefits of a relationship outweigh the risks?  Cognitive change and calm analysis are essential but difficult to practice.  It takes time and effort to change the way we think especially with some of our most persistent fears.

Bertie, or the King, likely had to slowly alter his thinking about what might happen when he spoke.  Instead of fearing shame and humiliation – or the taunting words of his father and others – he might have gradually understood that most people are quietly rooting for a public speaker to succeed.

As Bertie found instances of success, he could have then thought about those past events and reassured himself that he was capable of speaking clearly and without humiliation.  Such memories are key in reassuring ourselves that fears of what might happen are frequently irrational.  Sensitizing ourselves to fearful situations – for instance spending time with harmless snakes – can lead us to understand that exaggerated emotions are wrong and irrational.  We will be OK.  We will be safe if we do not react without thinking.  As President Franklin Roosevelt famously stated to our nation in the depths of the 1930’s economic depression, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Interestingly, the Buddhist method of mind control and meditation offers a spiritual remedy to fear also found in western cognitive therapy.  As one habituates oneself to a fear – thinking about it and facing it head on – one learns to control and deal rationally with one’s emotional response.  This is mind control – consciously encouraging one’s own brain to slow down, relax, and think through a given situation in an honest manner.  And, of course, Buddhists also encourage a proactive approach to eliminating fear – by discarding worldly desires which lead to a fear of loss of the very things we desire.

Christian faith also offers some usefulness through cognitive change and mind control.  For those who have a strong faith in God and Jesus Christ, repeating to oneself that the Divine One is ultimately in control, can offer great peace.  This is best exemplified in Psalm 23, “Yea, thou I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.  Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” Whatever our thoughts about faith, spiritual prayer, contemplation, and Scripture reading offer to many people genuine peace and freedom from fear.

And all of this leads me to my own life example of conquering fear.  As I watched the movie “The King’s Speech”, I could not help but see glimpses of my own life played out.  Indeed, I sometimes see my life as one long battle with fear – and thus withholding parts of myself.  With relationships, I too long feared seeking what was true for me.  In my work, I have often feared being assertive.  Many of my fears result from my own failures to act and to think rationally about myself and my worries.  But one overriding fear in my life rings true with what Bertie faced as well – fears of my father’s voice, his opinion and his disapproval.

Without wanting to unfairly disparage my dad, whom I love very much, he is a dominant figure in my life.  As a more sensitive and non-athletic young man, I was likely not the ideal son he would have liked.  My dad is an archetypical macho man.  He was very athletic in his youth – playing on the football and baseball teams and excelling at them.  I, however, was not born with high levels of eye-hand coordination.  I find throwing a ball or swinging a bat difficult.  I prefer sports like swimming and running.  I am also soft-spoken in contrast to my dad’s booming voice.  I prefer quiet discussion instead of verbal confrontation and I am, by nature, an introvert.

All these qualities were not taken well by my father.  Some of his comments to me as a young boy and teenager still echo in my mind: “Grow up!”  “Act like a man!”  “Don’t be a sissy!”  “Why do you throw a ball like a girl?”  And such comments from my father combine in my memory with taunts I heard at school  – words like “faggot”, “queer” and “sissy”.  Before I even knew I was gay, the collective gaydar of my father and other boys had essentially labeled me as such.

These youth experiences of mine led me to my own internal homophobia.  I was scared to death of being gay.  I hated even thinking that I might be gay.  I lived for over twenty years – from teenage years into my forties – deeply in the closet and panicked that I would be found out.  I was even so afraid of being gay that I tried with all my might not to be – I got married, fathered children and became overtly religious.  Fear of myself and of my truth, ended up hurting others as much it hurt me.

Coming out nearly seven years ago was my own act of shouting, as Bertie does in the movie, “I have a voice!” But that episode in my life was not easy nor without its own fears.  How would the world now treat a gay Doug Slagle?  How would my daughters – whom I love so very, very much – react?  What would my parents – and my father most of all – say?

My process of facing fears has never been easy.  They can be so debilitating.  Ultimately for me, I rationally concluded that the possible pain I feared could not be worse than life lived with worry and doubt.   The depression, loneliness and sense of emptiness that often haunted me because of my fears are now receding into a distant past.

As I came out, I understood some of my fears were irrational.  I would survive.  While some people abandoned me, others did not.  My daughters embraced me with love and support.  I found new friends and a new church all of whom affirmed me and helped me understand that being gay is not something to be feared but rather embraced and celebrated as another part of a diverse humanity.

My father still looms large in my life.  He is, at heart, a very good man who has done a lot of wonderful things in this world.  Over the last year and a half, he has accepted Ed and been extremely nice to him.  Just over a week ago, my parents concluded a two week stay with Ed and me – when they daily had to confront the fact that their son lives with another man.  They were gracious and kind.

But my dad can still make disparaging comments and he still finds it hard to accept me as a man in my own right.  As much as he attends the Gathering when he is in town, he sometimes cannot let go of himself and show interest in my messages.  Such slights often hurt but they are a part of who he is and how he too was raised.  My fears of him have diminished as I have altered how I think about him – to forgive him, to understand him, to realize I am ultimately in control of my life.  I do have a voice.  After so many years living in fear of myself, my father and what others might think of me, I am now a reasonably happy man.

And happiness, my friends, is what life is all about.  We are here to pursue it as much as we are here to provide it and assist others in finding it.  Happiness comes with personal fulfillment and freedom from want and freedom from fear.  So much suffering in our world comes as a result of fear – both from within our minds and as a result of outside forces.  And we must work to reduce the hurts and fears others face – fears of hunger, poverty, war and disease.  But how much human potential is locked away in any of us because of fear – to share love, to serve others, to work and live in truth?

My friends, Madame Curie once said, “Nothing in life is to be feared.  It is only to be understood.” Let us understand ourselves and our minds.  Let us examine with clear minds past hurts and traumas.  May we let go of fear and realize the life possibilities that lie so tantalizingly close.  It is often said that the fear of death diminishes the joy of life.  But our fears can be overcome through simple courage – courage to understand our fear filled emotions, courage to see them as potentially irrational, courage to embrace, to engage, to confront, and to be who we were created to be.  Such acts of bravery are never easy but they speak with power.  It is in the small acts of life that we are heroic – like overcoming a stutter, or coming out, or finding and giving away love.  The everyday hero is not free of fear – he or she has simply faced it with honesty.  May each of us shine brightly as beautiful, capable and wondrously created souls free of fear…