Will Smith, Chris Rock, and the challenge of forgiving and forgetting

You don't need to have slapped someone at the Oscars to empathise with the contrite actor

Will Smith apologises in a video for slapping Chris Rock at Academy Awards 2022. YouTube
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Will Smith has recently emerged from his self-imposed media blackout, asking for forgiveness.

That call was directed towards Chris Rock, the comedian and Academy Awards host, whom Smith slapped on stage during the live broadcast of the ceremony in March.

While the resulting damage to Smith’s career has been considerable, it is not comparable to an enduring friendship lost.

Hence, Smith’s heartfelt apology to Rock, uploaded on YouTube, and the promise of being available “whenever you're ready to talk.”

Rock is reportedly not interested in reciprocating the gesture. Such a move challenges a long-held convention that forgiveness is always possible.

It is a subject I have occasionally written about over the years, partly inspired by my own struggles, leading to some interesting insights about my friends, faith and perceived failures.

The friend

“There you again, with this forgiveness talk,” said my friend, let’s call him Rob, during a Zoom call this week.

He is a social worker in Melbourne, Australia and, despite exemplifying the grace demanded by the gruelling profession, it is difficult for Rob to offer it to himself and a former partner, who walked out of their relationship before their wedding.

Rob is adamant he won’t forgive her.

“And I am sick of beating myself over it,” he says.

"Society places so much pressure on forgiveness and how it is as an act of strength and that I will feel better if I do it.

“I don’t believe in that. I think that it is perfectly reasonable not to accept an apology while not wishing any ill will towards the person who hurt you.”

The sheikh

ABU DHABI - UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - 06JULY2016 - Residents of UAE embrace and wish each other Eid Mubarak after offering prayers on the occasion of Eid-Ul-Fitr at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque yesterday in Abu Dhabi. Ravindranath K / The National (to go with Anwar story for News)   ID: 32547 *** Local Caption ***  on06jl-eid prayers-PG4.jpg

In the Islamic faith, the practice of forgiveness is of such paramount importance it is even afforded its own seasons.

With the recent passing of both Eid Al Fitr and Eid Al Adha, Muslims will be familiar with the after-prayer sermon about the way certain occasions are blessed opportunities to start afresh and let go of past hurts.

I personally embrace that notion as the communal joy of Eid Al Fitr, coupled with the spiritual afterglow that comes with fasting in the preceding month of Ramadan, often gives me the extra strength to have those difficult conversations and make amends.

Another motivating factor lies in the central pitch of the Eid sermon, which often asks how people can ask for God's forgiveness if they can't forgive others?

It’s a concept that was illuminated to me years ago when interviewing Abdallah Al Araby, who at the time was imam of the Dubai Airport Mosque.

Imam Al Araby explained that the spiritual premium placed on forgiveness — also elucidated throughout the Quran — provides us with the extra motivation to perform the act without bruised egos getting in the way.

"This way your action sticks," he said

"You may feel even more angry or sad if the other person didn't react to your forgiveness the way you expect.

“But by linking your actions to strengthening your faith, you just won't be concerned by the other's actions."

The therapist

Despite its spiritual and physiological benefits, forgiveness is not for everybody, according to Jeanne Safer, author of 2000's Forgiving and Not Forgiving: Why Sometimes It’s Better Not to Forgive.

In an interview, the American psychotherapist told me how the biggest challenge facing those willing to forgive consists of some of the unrealistic goals attributed to the act.

“We are supposed to have this great revelation and we weep and we embrace," she said.

"But I think there is a large range of cathartic experiences. To be able to go on with life and be able to love and trust other people and at the same time recognise that someone is not ought to be in my life is a very important and mature recognition."

Moving forward

It seems that Rock has reached that clarity.

“Anyone who says words hurt has never been punched in the face,” he quipped when addressing the Oscars incident during a US stand-up performance last month, before declaring that he is "not a victim”.

He said he "shook off" the incident and "went to work the next day."

It is an approach my friend Rob also subscribes to and I am proud of his resilience in putting his life back on track.

It also shows that forgiveness is a complex act with no guarantee of acceptance.

What we hopefully can do, in the meantime, is show each other that little bit of grace — something Rock and Smith have been doing, in their own way, for the world to see.

Updated: August 06, 2022, 1:52 PM