Thursday, April 7, 2011
Chapel Talk on The King’s Speech
7 April 2011
“The Humble Man Who Would Be King”
St. Joseph’s Chapel, Kent School
During our recent time away from school, I was able to see, finally, the powerful movie The King’s Speech, the story of how Prince Albert, the Duke of York, became King George VI, the unlikely King of England despite a debilitating speech impediment. Though this movie is about the struggles of a prince to assume his rightful but unexpected position of responsibility, I found the movie to also be about what it means for all of us to be human—to be human beings, and that our hardest struggles might just be the most important thing we do in our lives.
I was slow in seeing this film, which won the Academy Award for best picture and three other Oscars for best directing, best acting, and best original screenplay. I also thought Geoffrey Rush deserved the Oscar for best supporting actor in his portrayal of Prince Albert’s unorthodox speech teacher, and many felt the same way about Helena Bonham Carter as the Duchess of York. I am often slow in seeing movies. This is because I live in Kent, Connecticut, and work at a boarding school. Know the feeling? On our breaks, your Monday of return to Kent has become the day when my wife and I finally go to the movies, after dropping our daughters off at school.
But it wasn’t just my schedule that made me slow to see the movie. Despite the critical praise, I was reluctant to see a movie centered on a speech impediment. It sounded awkward and uncomfortable, and it was at times. When I have recommended the film to others, this is one of the first questions I’m asked. Is that all it’s about? Yes, it’s about that, and not that much more. It’s about the struggle to overcome a disabling condition. But then you can’t take your eyes off the screen because of two amazing elements in the film: interiors and faces. Some of these beautiful interiors are, of course, in palaces of royal splendor—corridors of power, and these interiors contrast with the humiliating stammering of Prince Albert. The speech impediment brings all of the architecture down to a human scale of adversity, of struggle. But it is still an impressive size where kings and princes and prime ministers and archbishops of Canterbury wander and do the business of church and state. But even the humble office and building of the speech therapist, the Australian Lionel Logue, was a feast for the eyes; in the descent from royalty to the domain of the common man, even to neighborhoods near squalor, where royalty seek a cure. It reminded me that interiors do shape us, from the beautiful building where we are now, to our living spaces, and our interaction with the natural world. The outward world shows us something about our souls, our spiritual shadows in these hallways, or on this New England landscape.
And then there are the faces. Colin Firth as Bertie; he has the face of confusion, pain, pride, shame, disappointment, anger, resolve, fear, tenacity. His portrayal of Prince Albert is the broken humility of a powerful person struggling to overcome. So human. So like each of us. And the most striking face of all: Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue the therapist, the one who doesn’t follow the rules and doesn’t take princes or kings very seriously. It is a face of compassion, irreverence, wisdom, cunning, tragedy, war, survival, wit, opportunism. The movie reminded me of how much you can see in a human face. It reminded me of what a privilege it is simply to witness each other. In our faces, there are the genes and dreams of our ancestors. In our faces, there is struggle and love and brokenness and hope.
In all our faces, there is the face of God.
I didn’t even wait until the end before I said to myself: “This movie is a chapel talk.” I didn’t necessarily want to give a chapel talk on the movie. That would be somehow redundant. But the movie itself was about what we get to do here, in this building, when we’re lucky—or when we’re at our best.
I also have a personal connection to this movie. Have you ever played the game six degrees of separation? Sometimes it’s six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon. We can play it with this movie, quickly. I have just two degrees of separation from the actual historical figures of this movie. I have a friend named Jim Leo who is a priest who served as Dean at the Anglican Cathedral in Paris. He is not a typical priest. Jim is irreverent and funny and even ribald, and that’s why I like him. At the cathedral in Paris, two of his parishioners and later close friends were the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. This is King Edward VIII, the one who abdicated the throne to his brother with the speech impediment. King Edward was unable to remain king because he married a twice divorced American woman, Wallis Simpson, the future Duchess of Windsor. My friend even accompanied the body of the duchess back to England after her death in Paris, and the first person to meet them when they landed was the current Queen of England, who was one of the little girls of Prince Albert, in the film. Got it? Royalty can be so confusing. Thank God for American democracy…nothing confusing about us. But to finish the game: now you can get to the historical figures of The King’s Speech with just three degrees of separation because you know me. You also can get to Kevin Bacon pretty fast too because he lives near us in Sharon, Connecticut, and is sometimes spotted in Kent, even on campus.
Back to my experience of this movie as a chapel talk, all on its own.
Here are 8 life lessons from The King’s Speech:
1. Be humble. Humility is a wonderful gift. It means to be of the earth. Failure can also be a blessing. I like to remind my basketball team on a regular basis: If you haven’t ever failed, you haven’t tried anything very hard. Give yourself a good failure. It might show you the way to your greatest success.
2. The one with the disability might just be the strongest one of all. Though his family made fun of him, Prince Albert actually had a powerful character which was forged in adversity. His father who mocked him said he was the toughest of them all. What makes Colin Firth so riveting as Prince Albert is that his humiliating speech problem actually allows us to see his regal character, the makings of a king. His speech teacher also spots a leader of a nation, not in his grace, but in the simple thing that is the hardest for him.
3. We call all relate to a king. Have you ever had nothing to say? Have you ever had trouble putting your ideas into words? Does this happen to you just about every time you write a paper? Or do math problems seem unsolvable? It’s completely alright to feel like an idiot. I try and do it at least once a day. Bertie’s experience is our journey too, and what’s hard for you may be easy for someone else, and vice versa. I know a lot of really smart people who don’t know how to say “I love you.”
4. You don’t have to psychoanalyze all the time to get better. I loved the fact that Prince Albert’s stammer might have something to do with being forced to write right-handed when he is left-handed, and wearing braces on his legs as a boy, and being under constant pressure and scrutiny as a prince. But the movie doesn’t go into the psyche of Prince Albert. There is compassion in the privacy.
5. Work is therapy. You don’t have to figure yourself out before you get to work. The work in your life actually helps you understand the real you. Work can help us heal, and healing doesn’t mean the problems go away. You can die and be completely healed. That’s what heaven and God are all about.
6. You don’t have to be perfect. Much of my procrastination has to do with perfectionism, not laziness. I’m not doing anything because I want my work to be perfect. Give yourself permission to do something ordinary and then just keep working, keep working at it, keep trying. It may become something better than perfect. And sometimes, your country may need you to just read a speech, without throwing up on yourself. You’ll do fine.
7. What you overcome is more important than what you achieve. When I was Chaplain to the University of Virginia, I found that was the message the students needed the most. High achieving people need to be reminded of this on a daily basis.
8. Create interiors of love. The most touching interior in Buckingham Palace is the ordinary room decorated by the speech teacher to make Prince Albert, now the king, comfortable when he gives his speech about the British entry into World War II. It is an act of love by Lionel Logue, with the whimsy and wonder of a childhood fort made with blankets on a rainy day. Create interiors that show your heart, and your love and care for each other. Spread success all around your world.
I recently came across a beautiful quotation from the Hindu scriptures: “God teaches us, not by ideas, but by pains and contradictions.” Struggle is normal. Let us all remember that. That would have been my ninth lesson, but eight is my favorite number. Sometimes it seems that struggle is what bends us, and twists us, so that we can barely walk, or talk, or love. But then, there are other days, when I know that the winds of struggle are actually the ones that make me stand upright. Struggle and adversity help me to walk straight; they help me find the right words, not the easy ones; and they help me rejoin the human race. May God bless all of you this spring. May God grant you success, but, more importantly, may God bless your struggles. Be kind to each other.