Have you ever been in the middle of what appears to be an incredible moment in your life only to have the moment sabotaged by your own actions? Many people have, myself included.
Well…over the last week, millions of people have watched a moment referred to as “#theslap” when Oscar nominee (now winner) Will Smith confidently walked onto the Oscars stage and slapped host Chris Rock across the face. Most people thought it was a stunt or a scripted part of the evening until Smith sat back down at his seat and yelled at Rock, “keep my wife’s name out of your…mouth.” At that moment, we knew this was no stunt. The crowd’s uncomfortable laughter quickly dissolved into an even more uncomfortable silence when he screamed the same thing a second time even louder.
Just a few minutes later, Will Smith was back on the stage receiving an Oscar for Best Actor. In his tearful acceptance speech, he stated that he was not crying because of winning the award, it was out of remorse for his actions and how it may have negatively impacted the award and all the people who should have been celebrated because of it. He apologized to basically everyone in the audience, everyone except Chris Rock. Potentially the greatest moment of an actor’s career, winning an Academy Award, tainted by the uncharacteristic assault. Instead of tears of joy and celebration, he had tears of regret.
What set all of this off? It must have been something egregious that Will Smith would publicly assault another person in front of a crowded room and in front of millions of viewers watching from their living rooms. Well, the thing that set it off was a joke targeted at Will Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. It wasn’t even a very funny joke. It was one poking fun at her hair and saying she could be in the next GI Jane movie. The joke hit home for Smith and his family. Jada has a condition called alopecia, which affects hair growth and is the reason for her short hair style. So in response, Will took the stage “in defense” of his wife’s honor and slapped Chris Rock.
Since the event, you can imagine there has been a lot of buzz over the topic. People supporting Smith for his chivalry, others condemning him for his violent response. Some are concerned for the safety and sanctity of comedians being able to use humor in, oftentimes, edgy ways at the expense of others. Some are talking about the misogyny in Hollywood and how women of color are often marginalized or used as the butt of a joke; like Seth MacFarlane did several years ago during his hosting of the Academy Awards. While all of these perspectives have validity and are things that clearly need to be addressed, I would like to talk about limbic responses.
If you are a longtime Pure Desire fan, then you know all about limbic responses. If you are not, let’s just get a quick recap. The limbic system is the part of the brain involved in our behavioral and emotional responses, especially when it comes to behaviors we need for survival: feeding, reproduction and caring for our young, and fight or flight responses. Emotional life is largely housed in the limbic system, and it critically aids the formation of memories.
As we all go through our day, anything we see, hear, taste, smell, or touch first gets filtered through the limbic system to determine if it is safe or how it relates to pain and fear. Ideally, we would be able to logically engage our prefrontal cortex to determine whether or not what we are experiencing is a real threat, or just connected to some painful part of our past. Once this happens we can respond in a fitting way. However, if we respond in a way that is not congruent with the situation, then we can pretty well say this is a “limbic response.” In other words, the current situation reminded us of some pain or fear from our past and we responded to that past event by over or under reacting to our current situation.
If we haven’t worked through our past, then we don’t get to pick when these incongruent reactions happen. Case in point, Will Smith emotionally storming the stage and slapping the host of an event where he was about to receive one of the most prestigious awards an actor can be given.
Imagine if instead, he would have acknowledged whatever past pain and fear Rock’s joke touched on. Then in his acceptance speech would have said, “I understand Chris’ joke was not meant to hurt anyone, he’s just trying to do his job and keep us entertained. However that joke touched close to home for my family, my wife, and many people who suffer from disease and conditions such as alopecia. To those people I would like to say that you are not alone and you can stand confident, like my courageous wife, and face life and the world with a resilience that gives others courage to do the same…”
I remember the first solo camping trip I took with our son. We drove out into the Pacific Northwest woods. I was looking forward to getting camp set up, cooking dinner over an open fire, roasting smores, and cuddling in our tent. Well, when we got to the campsite, we realized there was a fire ban. Right when we started to unpack the car my son had an accident in his pants. Then it started to rain. So we ate our food under a tarp and crawled into the tent because there was nothing else to do. We played some board games and then tried to go to sleep. The rain kept us up for a long time. Then in the middle of the night I felt something wet. My son had another accident in his brand new sleeping bag. In frustration, I yelled pretty loudly and, of course, scared my son, who had done nothing wrong. I felt horrible.
Here we are on what is supposed to be our awesome first camping trip and I’ve done something to ruin it. I could blame it on the pooped in pants or the rain or the fire ban or the wet sleeping bag. Those are all valid frustrations. But the thing that ultimately tainted the moment wasn’t any of those things. It was my limbic reaction. Even though we still had fun on that trip and I have pictures to prove it, just like Will Smith has pictures of him dancing at an after party with his family, I will always remember my anger in that limbic moment.
We’ve all had those moments where we sabotage our own victories, accomplishments, and celebrations. We can also always circle back and apologize to those we’ve hurt in our limbic moments, like I did with my son and Will Smith did with Chris Rock and the world. But how much more of a reminder to us is this of the importance of dealing with our past and our wounds so that we can be present today and enjoy life with those we love.
Never stop pursuing health. Apologize when needed. Face consequences as they arise. Learn from your mistakes.
The views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are those of the author alone and do not reflect an official position of Pure Desire Ministries, except where expressly stated.
ROBERT VANDER MEER
Robert is a Pastoral Sex Addiction Professional (PSAP), certified through the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals (IITAP). Robert and his wife, Rebecca, represented Pure Desire in Latin America for a few years before returning to the United States to join the clinical staff in 2013. He is the Associate Pastor at The Oregon Community and one of the founders of The Oregon Public House.