The Slap Heard Around the World
Reportedly Denzel Washington paraphrased it as, “"At your highest moment, be careful, that's when the devil comes for you," which is really an extrapolation and paraphrase of 2 Corinthians 10:12, “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!”
Given that I don’t tend to go to movies, nor do I own a television, I did not see the Academy Award Presentation or the slap heard around the world which prompted this remark. However, when I heard what happened, it was like de ja vu all over again.
In the Old Testament 2 Samuel 12 there is the famous story of Prophet Nathan’s rebuke of King David wherein he tells David about a rich man who had lots of sheep and cattle, who, when he had guests drop by for dinner, decides to steal and slaughter his poor neighbor’s lamb which the neighbor had raised and loved as a pet. Then Nathan poses the question, “What should be done to such a jerk as that?” King David responds by becoming incensed and saying the rich man should pay four times the price of the lamb. Then Nathan delivers the punchline to David, “You are that man”.
When I heard the story of what Will Smith did, I was shaken by the thought, “I am that man.” No, I am not a famous actor, producer, director, musician and entrepreneur like Will Smith, but I have had a very regrettable moment during my senior year of high school when I lost my emotional regulation and punched a friend and teammate in the side of the head. Ostensibly, I was not upset because of an offense against me, but because I perceived that one of my classmates was making fun of another classmate behind his back. Perhaps, just as Will Smith could argue that he had to defend his wife’s honor, I could argue that I had to defend the honor of my performing arts tour roommate. However, deep down I know that my response was disproportional to the situation; like Will Smith, I had in a moment unnecessarily escalated a joke, maybe even a joke in poor taste, to the level of violent confrontation.
Like Will Smith I put my good accomplishments to that moment in jeopardy: I was a two sport athlete having success on the football field and the wrestling mat; I performed in two musical groups and had a decent GPA in college prep coursework culminating in already being accepted to universities in the spring of my senior year. Like Will Smith I received the mercy of not being arrested. Also, like Will Smith I received the grace of a Christian classmate who came to offer me consolation and prayer recognizing my distress and isolation over what I did.
Unlike Will Smith, I was only seventeen years of age at the time, but still there was a learning and recovery process. I have learned the 4Fs of recovery from mistakes: Fix it; Forgive it; Forget it and Forge ahead. Fixing it always means apologizing and doing the best to repair the damage you have done. Effective apologies have to go beyond a vague “I am sorry” to specific acknowledgement of the wrong. This is effective for both parties. How can I repair what I have damaged until I assess and fully acknowledge what I have done? This is no different than after an auto-accident having a professional tear apart and inspect your car for damages down to the frame. Just like an auto-accident some repairs take longer than others. As for the friend I hit, the bruising on his face would heal in a week, but the bond of trust would take much longer to repair. In some cases, an auto-accident is so bad that even though you do extensive repairs the vehicle never runs the same and is even labeled “salvaged”. As for my friend and teammate from high school, our friendship was knocked off trajectory; it would never run the same.
Forgiveness is a state of mind. How you handle the fixing phase influences the state of mind of the victim. At seventeen, I was too caught up in my sense of shame to effectively know how to handle the fixing and repair part. As it turns out, that was what led to the problem in the first place. I brought into the room that day a deep-seated sense of shame, unworthiness, and lack of power from previous childhood experience that left me without the tools to process my emotions and respond effectively. My reaction might be described as a reactivation of past trauma that had nothing to do with the present. I probably would have been so much more effective, if I had enough confidence in my social influence to approach my friend privately and state how and why his behavior disturbed me.
Forgetting does not flow easily from forgiveness, nor should it. If I had a regular habit of hitting people, then it would not be in my friend’s best interest to forget that, in case it should happen again. Remembering traumatic events can be protective but being overprotective can be destructive. In truth the human brain is designed to remember any arousing event and forgetting is unnatural. The best way to forget something is to remember something else. That is just like when you get one of those brain worm songs stuck in your head, the best way to get it out of your head is to sing a different song that is equally as catchy. If I present good behavior to my friend over-time, sing a new non-violent song, then with time the memory of the good will replace the memory of the bad. Thus, building trust can only occur over time because it takes a lot of repetition of the good to replace the recollection of the bad.
Forging ahead also means learning a new song. I needed to learn, practice and replace my previous responses to emotional situations. Over the years, I have learned how to not become emotionally overwhelmed by relying on higher truths, like Isiah 41:10. Even when there is real offense or threat, not just a misperception, I know I can stand and face it calmly. I remember things like being empathetic to others and calmly expressing my feelings. I know when to do so in private where I can be heard instead of in front of everyone where I make the other person feel defensive, and actually humiliate myself as much as them.
I have no intention of heaping more shame on Will Smith, but to instead identify with him. I would encourage him in this truth, “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” (I Corinthians 10:13). I think more of us, than will admit, have had the urge to hit someone, because in the moment what they said really moved us toward rage.
Even though I had learned, grown and changed for the better from the seventeen-year-old me, In the year between June 30th 2020 and June 30th 2021 I was brought to the edge of a falling. During that period, I faced the stresses of a job lay-off, two job changes, unemployment payments being delayed a year, three friends dying, singing at a handful of funerals, taking classes and only getting three consecutive days of vacation. I remember having to extricate myself from a heated discussion with my supervisor by saying, “Excuse me -I need to step outside for a moment.” I then I left her office closing the door. While standing outside, I could hear in my head the explosion that I was tempted to set off complete with the expletives, I might use. At the same time, I realized that what I was feeling went way beyond the situation. I waited thirty seconds to let the thoughts stop reverberating in my head. When I went back, I instead stated, “I am sorry, I am sick and I need to go home.” I then left and took a sick day. It wasn’t a perfect exit, but a much better outcome leaving me and everyone else involved with less to fix and forget than my first impulse.
There is victory and peace in living in the present as opposed to being activated by past trauma. In the present of being nominated for an Oscar and having preserved his family through some challenges, Chris Rock’s joke, even if offensive, was inconsequential to the moment. A well-placed comment either during Will Smith’s acceptance speech or post Oscar interview would have had so much better effect of defending his wife’s honor and preserving his own. Likewise, a well-placed comment either in the moment or later in private would have more effectively preserved both of my high school friendships. Being present now means living out the knowledge I gained from past experience. Likewise, the best Will Smith can do now is complete the 4F’s and live out the very valuable knowledge he has gained form the experience. Still, even on the days when I think I have it all together, I need to be watchful, because it only takes a moment to fall.
- Image borrowed from "Will Smith's Slap is a Trauma Response. Medapage Today: 2022.