Anger is a force powerful enough to control you, overriding rationality. “Temporary madness” is how the Stoic, Seneca, described anger. It was this temporary madness that controlled both President Joe Biden and actor Will Smith this past weekend.
On Sunday, Smith slapped comedian Chris Rock on stage at the Academy Awards after a weak joke about his wife’s hair. Smith, now forever a meme for all the wrong reasons, sullied not only his reputation but the greatest accomplishment of his acting career, winning an Oscar for the first time.
Anger was in control.
So much so that Smith got up out of his seat, took at least twenty steps in front of a crowd of people, and slapped Rock with an open hand. ‘Will Smith just smacked the shit out of me,” responded Rock.
This incident doesn’t mean much in the larger societal context as so many pundits have suggested. This is all on Will. He alone acted the fool. Because he gave into his anger, led into temporary madness because of one of the worst jokes of Rock’s illustrious career.
Smith wasn’t alone. Temporary madness took over the president of the United States as well. Biden was visiting Europe in an effort to show unity with European leaders in the face of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While there, POTUS visited a refugee camp in Poland where thousands of children are living, having fled their war-torn country in search of safety.
Biden got angry. Understandably so.
Until he suggested regime change in Russia, saying, “for God’s sake, this man (Russian dictator Vladimir Putin) cannot stay in power.” Temporary madness took over and could further escalate the war, which could potentially lead to more children having to flee their homes. The exact opposite of what Biden wants.
This is why Seneca, who penned an entire book about the subject, On Anger, warns us temporary madness can blind us to the long-term consequences of our actions when in this state.
Certainly Will Smith wasn’t thinking about the award he was about to receive when he followed anger’s path onto that stage. After slapping Rock, he probably felt great. But, the anger quickly gave way to remorse. In his acceptance speech Smith apologized to the Academy. He didn’t apologize to Chris Rock though, finally doing so on social media the next day for all of us to see.
In the acting world, there probably will be minimal long-term consequences for Smith. However, the reputation he’s tried to build over the past thirty-years is at risk. All because of one moment. All because of this temporary madness.
Two days after temporary madness took over, Biden said,
Number one, I’m not walking anything back. The fact of the matter is I was expressing the moral outrage I felt toward the way Putin is dealing, and the actions of this man — just — just the brutality of it. Half the children in Ukraine. I had just come from being with those families.
And so — but I want to make it clear: I wasn’t then, nor am I now, articulating a policy change. I was expressing the moral outrage that I feel, and I make no apologies for it.
The long-term consequences when the president lets anger control him could be more severe than Smith’s. Suggesting Putin shouldn’t remain in power was an unplanned line. An unplanned line that risks division in the NATO alliance as Biden aims to keep the countries aligned. Remember, Putin is crazy enough to invade another country unprovoked.
Anger is a natural emotion. It comes and goes. But, decisions shouldn’t be made in anger. You might ruin one of the greatest nights of your life over a lame joke. You might escalate an already tense situation. Rock was probably angry after getting slapped. Rock should be commended, maybe not for the joke, but for not starting a brawl with Smith. He didn’t give in to his temporary madness.
Presidential speeches shouldn’t be made in a state of anger either. Anger can be a useful emotion if you use the emotion to learn about yourself and ask what made you angry and why. Staying in control during anger spikes is the true victory, not slapping someone in the face or adding tension to a war which has already displaced over ten million people.
Biden getting angry over displaced children is normal. Lashing out, as president, is not. Maybe nothing will change from his outburst, but outbursts can be combustible. After Biden’s comment – and several others during his 50 year political career – I have to now wonder what other decisions he might make in anger or what else the leader of the free world might say in that state, one that may lead to long-term consequences that could impact millions more.
I get it. Putin shouldn’t remain in power. He’s a madman. He willingly killed thousands of his own countrymen, murdered innocent civlians, and forced more than ten million people from their homes. Regime change hasn’t worked very well in the past. However, it’s one thing if I say it and an entirely different circumstance when a person with the power to send American soldiers to war says it.
Especially since he says he’s working hard to keep Americans out of the war in Ukraine.
If we are being honest, Biden should turn his claimed “moral outrage” inward. Because, he, as president, played a role here in the displacement of Ukranians. Biden couldn’t figure out how to stop Putin’s invasion. Biden admitted to showing all his cards to Putin.
“Hey Vlad, if you invade Ukraine here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to hit your economy with severe sanctions. European countries will too.”
Maybe that’s why Biden is truly angry. Because deep down he knows his strategy didn’t work. Maybe he thought about that when he was looking at those children’s faces, lives forever changed.
But, that’s not an excuse. As the leader of the free world who often talks about being in an historical “inflection point,” he should never make decisions in that state.
At least for us, there’s a lesson in both these stories. A lesson in control. Anger will always be there. But, you don't have to react to it the way Smith or Biden did. It’s one of the hardest challenges we face, staying in control in the face of anger when your body and mind are rebelling against your sensibilities.
Certainly, I’m not perfect and still give into anger (especially when driving). But, I know when anger and other emotions show up those are opportunities for me to learn more about myself. That is truly a gift.
Take a few breaths. Take a walk. Process your anger. Sit with it. Understand it. Think about the long-term consequences if you acted while in this state. Release anger in a healthy way before temporary madness becomes permanent.