Permission to Speak: Dealing With Difficult Subjects


There are things about which it is difficult to speak. Hurt feelings, loss, and embarrassment can fall into that category. We are afraid to be misunderstood. We are afraid that disapproval will follow. And so, too often, there is silence.

The person who knows just a bit about our circumstances might also hesitate. Perhaps she doesn’t want to embarrass us either. Perhaps she expects that we will give a signal, convey the need to speak if that is what we want. Perhaps it is thought to be all too personal, too painful, too uncomfortable.

Or maybe it is simply that with more knowledge of another’s pain there also comes unwanted responsibility to ameliorate it. And so, too often, there is silence.

Sometimes what is lacking is a sense of permission. That the other is open to opening a wound, showing a scar. That the other is not too squeamish, won’t be offended, won’t judge. That it won’t be a burden or an imposition. That there is time.

It is all very fragile. As if two people were trying to move as close as they can to each other without touching; fearing that to touch — to go too close — would somehow spoil it. It is between two and about “too.” Two people hesitating at the possibility of being “too” close. As James Baldwin said, it is the mistrust of contact that

…takes off the masks we fear that we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.

The ingredients for this delicate amalgamation can be named. The hope that the other will not be callous, belief that you will not be injured, need for consolation. And, naturally, something that caused the damage in the first place is also a required part of the equation. The thing about which words must be said. It is usually easier if that injury — that thing — came from the outside, not the person opposite you.

The 2011 movie,  Monsieur Lazhar, deals with just such a situation and the need to speak about it. Even more fragile and necessary because children are involved.

It is set in French Canada, where a class of 11 and 12-year-old students have suffered the loss of their teacher. A substitute is chosen, an Algerian immigrant named Bachir Lazhar.

The school doesn’t know quite how to handle things. The children’s room is painted a new color, the better to help them get over the loss; the better to distract them from their instructor’s death. A school psychologist meets with the kids in a group. The class does well academically, and yet…

There are signs of trouble. One boy remains aggressive. One girl who is not the object of his aggression is particularly angry with that boy. One student transfers out. Parents are bewildered. Something needs to be said, but no one senses the permission to say it. No one wishes to rock the boat since, on the surface, things seem back to “normal.”

Physical contact between teachers and students is verboten under the school rules, for fear that it will go too far. Thus, the setting lacks the comfort of both understanding speech and human touch. And so, too often, there is silence. What will Monsieur Lazhar, a man with his own pressing demons, do?

The movie is quiet and quite moving. It is sustained by an understated, gentle, hopeful possibility. The atmosphere is suspended. There is space for something to happen, something good that will help the healing. Courage is required on all sides.

If you are used to films about exteriors, you will be disappointed. This one is about interiors, what goes on inside of us and in the space between children and adults when the adults are as hesitant and injured as the children. If you need car chases and special effects and sex, it is not a picture for you. Monsieur Lazhar is a movie about children, but for adults. The English subtitles of this French language film are easy to follow.

If you are a survivor of loss (and who among us is not), there is something here for you. Not everything needs to be said. Sometimes a look or a touch is enough. But not everything just goes away without human consolation in the form of words.

We need to give ourselves and others the permission to speak. Otherwise there is emptiness, missed opportunity.

And so, too often, there is silence.

2 thoughts on “Permission to Speak: Dealing With Difficult Subjects

  1. This really resonates with me. When I was a child I my parents stopped me from speaking and now I stop myself. It is so painful and difficult I can’t even speak to my therapist and I am paying him to listen.


    • drgeraldstein

      You have lots of company in this, Diane. It sounds like you are hanging in there with your therapist. Sometimes it takes a long while before we can get over this kind of hurdle. Thanks for your comment and best of luck.


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