Will Smith’s slap; love without compassion

I have read many different reactions to Will Smith’s slap at the Oscars that you won’t have missed. Of course, each reaction carries an element of subjectivity, and the sum of the opinions is more a social construction than an elaboration of the truth. 

One thing that is striking at first glance is that Will Smith has values of non-violence and love. He says it himself in his letter of apology, ” my actions were not indicative of the man I want to be. ” So what happened between his intention of non-violence and his act.

“Will Smith did not react for his wife or for his honor, he reacted because his wife’s suffering was unbearable.”



Will Smith did not react for his wife or for his honor, he reacted because his wife’s suffering was unbearable. We all understood that Chris Rock’s nice joke touched Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith’s wife because her haircut was not a choice but the consequence of alopecia. 

Will Smith didn’t react to the joke itself; he says, he knows it’s ok to make those kinds of jokes in this context. He reacted to the perception of his wife’s suffering. Again, he writes this in his apology letter ” a joke about Jada’s medical condition was too much for me to bear and I reacted emotionally”. It was not the joke, but her emotion that was unbearable. Why?

Love and compassion

Darwin had already noticed that we have more compassion for those close to us than for those who are far from us. Compassion is a sensitivity to suffering with a motivation to engage with that suffering o relieve it (Gilbert).

How does the suffering of our loved ones change our compassionate response? 

It is not directly compassion that is linked to affective proximity but our perception of suffering. We can speak here of emotional contagion. The connection, the degree of bond we have with a person, what is commonly called love, leads us to perceive the suffering of the other as if it were our own.

When we perceive this suffering, we have two choices.

  1. The first is to welcome it with compassion, that is, to make room for the suffering. The space that is then created between us and the person suffering will be a space of restoration, of integration of the pain. This integration is linked to processes of synchronization of the brain waves between the two people connected. 
  2. If this suffering is too difficult to bear, another motivation will be activated, which I call the no-suffering motivation. It looks a lot like compassion, but it reality aims at removing the suffering, like solving a problem. It is what we do, for example, by nimbing ourselves, by avoiding a difficult situation or by trying to destroy the situation or the person who is the source of our suffering (what we usually call hate) … It is this motivation of non-suffering that leads us to wage war on those who hurt us, to avoid a child from risking injury while riding a bicycle or leads us to avoid a sick person we love. 

The shining joy of seriously ill children is often interpreted as a sign of strength and fighting spirit in the face of disease. Sometimes it is, but sometimes it may also be a strategy to cope with the distress of their loved ones. They put on a big smile to regulate the suffering of their parents, affected by the emotional contagion in reaction to their own suffering. A bit like a sounding board, if the child suffers, the parents suffer too. The child puts on a big smile to avoid seeing his or her parents in distress.

In that way, Will Smith saw his wife suffering from hair loss and he certainly tried to contain his emotional reaction. Seeing his wife hurt publicly putted him in front of something he probably hadn’t accepted.

When I delivered my first child without anesthesia, the father came out after several hours in the delivery room. I felt a deep sense of relief, not that he was coming out, but I was relieved that I no longer had to contain the expression of my pain. I was able to scream for the first time. I often have empathetic patients who are liberated to understand that their spouse, while not able to bear their suffering, is not unconcerned. He or she may just be in a non-suffering motivation.


Of course, I am not avoiding the question of violence. It is obviously regrettable that Will Smith was violent in his act. But let’s not forget that the first cause of violence is violence. Why? Because violence, like the perception of suffering, is conveyed through connecting links. Research on contagion has shown that many shootings are triggered by previous shootings, through mechanisms of revenge. The suffering of the victims’ loved ones leads to further violence, and programs such as Cure Violence, which support victims and their loved ones in defusing the violence, have proven effective.

Will Smith himself was a victim of his father’s violence towards his mother and the feeling that he should have defended her entrenched this violence. 

This behavior was met with an immediate public apology, which tends to show that this act was not a reflexive calculation of attempted domination, as it may sometimes be the case with some violence, but rather the result of intense pain. Being able to express that one has made a mistake and show acts of restoration is fundamental in the process of defusing violence. 

America is not only suffering from an excess of violence but also from having a huge heart, which is not supported by enough compassion.

The good news is that compassion can grow. It may be the new El Dorado? The new American dream? The new movie whose superhero will have to discover his powers by accepting the vulnerability of the one he loves…

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