The slap heard around the world

March 31, 2022

by Ravi Raman

This week I’ve been thinking about the thing everyone has been talking about, the slap heard around the world, Will Smith’s altercation with Chris Rock at The Oscar’s a few days ago.

I love both of these performers. They are true artists and strike me not only as talented but deeply kind and mature. Perhaps that is what is striking a nerve in me about this matter, to see behavior that is so at odds with my mental image of a person.

What should we make of this spectacle?

There are no shortage of hot takes on the matter. Some siding with Will’s “chivalry” in defending his wife’s honor against a petty insult hurled from a stage. Others (and seemingly most based on what I’ve been reading) are appalled that someone of Will’s stature would stoop to violence as a response to a joke, even if the joke is interpreted as an insult. To make things clear, I’m firmly in the camp that violence is never a valid response to life’s challenges, except in extreme cases of self-defense.

However, there is something nobody seems to be talking about that any leader (or peacemaker) must understand. What Will did was innocent. This doesn’t mean there should be no repercussions for his actions, but it does mean that the mechanism that drove his behavior is innocently operating behind the scenes for all of us. Without proper understanding, anyone’s mind will take them for a ride, and a very unpleasant one at that.

What Will did was innocently respond to an insecure thought. That’s right, he had a thought, and without self-awareness, responded to it in a way that made sense to him at the moment. It probably didn’t appear that way for Will, he probably was responding to what he saw as a real threat. However, the only threat was created in his mind.

This is the natural functioning of the human mind for all of us…and it’s innocent by design. Thought is so captivating that it appears real, and provokes reactions. We didn’t create this design, but we should learn how to work with it gracefully if we aspire to work well and be well in the world.

Said another way, we are living in a psychological experience, not an experience of circumstances. The mind (and whatever powers the mind) has ultimate control over what we do. When the mind is calm and settled and we have present-moment awareness, even the most heinous thought causes no trouble, passing through us like a wave rolling past a ship in the ocean. However, when we are completely lost in thought, even the most innocent notion can provoke a horrifying reaction.

The implication is this: any of us with the same quality of thoughts and limited self-awareness that Will experienced at that exact moment, would behave just as he did in this scenario.

Through the ages, wisdom traditions have warned against allowing the torrent of thought to drive insecure behavior. The ancients have also taught that with enough presence of mind (self-awareness, mindfulness, and patience) we can break free of such reactivity.

I think this is the real lesson from what we saw at The Oscars. It’s not the “good vs bad” hot takes on the matter. It’s the innocence in which people – even people we love and our very selves – can get caught in something as subtle as an insecure thought, with disastrous consequences.

Let this serve as a warning, to pay more care to mental well-being and the well-being of those we lead and love. Let’s bring more understanding and calm to our days. Not all thoughts require a reaction, but they do require our presence and peace of mind.

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