Value Shaping Events

In 1919, the City of Omaha, Nebraska had one of the nation’s worst racial incidents. Major meat packing plants in Omaha had hired African Americans as strike breakers. This caused a tense racial climate. The incident that sparked a riot was when an African American was arrested for the alleged rape of a white woman. The arrest was based upon a less than positive identification. A group of white youths marched to the jail demanding the release of the alleged rapist, Will Brown. The rioters eventually obtained Brown and hung him from a high post. Hundreds of bullets ripped through his body as he was hanging. Brown’s lifeless body was then drug through the street and eventually burned.

Henry, a 14-year-old boy, was witness to the killing and burning of Will Brown. Henry was shaken by what he saw. As an old man, Henry remembered: “It was the most horrendous sight I’ve ever seen.” The death of Will Brown was a value shaping event for Henry. Throughout his life, he staunchly rejected prejudice of any kind.

Young Henry went on to become one of America’s all-time great actors. Throughout Henry Fonda’s movie career, he played characters with strong moral values, often calling for a life to be spared. One of his greatest films, the Ox-Bow Incident, concerned vigilante violence. As Fonda’s character faces a mob, the script had him saying: “Man just naturally can’t take the law into his own hands and hang people without hurting everybody in the world.” Clearly, the brutal death of Will Brown shaped Henry Fonda’s values.

Value shaping events are experiences that make us who we are. These events last a lifetime in our memory. In many cases, they haunt us. They become the core of our conscience. They help us make moral choices that might be difficult otherwise.

Not all value shaping events need to be as traumatic as Henry Fonda’s was. They can be situations where we learned indelible lessons from experiences both good and bad. They may result from guidance from a mentor. They could be the result of a relationship.

The key to value shaping events is to be always aware of experiences as possibly life shaping. Just imagine what we can learn from experiences, good and bad? Just imagine how we can educate ourselves to identify what an experience says about our values? Just imagine how you would have reacted if you saw what Henry Fonda saw? As you reflect on your own values, what events might you recall that shaped them?

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“The world is shaped by two things – stories told and the memories they leave behind.” – Vera Nazarian (author).

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