Is it possible to create value out of any situation?
By Sean Grover
Life deals us so many sufferings – loved ones pass, illness occurs, tragedy strikes. In a heartbeat we could be hit with a critical blow we never saw coming, an event that could change the course of our lives forever.
The bottom line: If you’re living and breathing, it’s only a matter of time before the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune dishearten you.
But it’s how you deal with misfortune that counts most. Anger, despair, fear…these feelings are often our first stop when faced with difficulties – where we go from there is up to us. Those first painful reactions (denial, depression, panic, or “why me?” responses) require no effort on our part; they appear naturally. After that, it’s our choices that will determine if we prolong our sufferings and allow them to warp our perspective or turn our sufferings into a fuel for personal growth.
But be warned: To find value in our sufferings takes a force of will; it doesn’t happen organically. Like any form of self-mastery, it takes time, practice, and sustained effort. But it’s well worth it. It’s how we view and take on our sufferings that will ultimately determine if our happiness is long lasting or transitory.
A close friend of mine had the painful experience of watching his mother succumb to Alzheimer’s disease. He described her final weeks in the hospital as pure agony. “Never before have I known such despair. To see my mother, who was always so strong, succumb to this horrible illness was unbearable.”
One day when Ryan visited his mother, as usual, she didn’t recognize him. After a few moments she asked him, thinking he was the doctor, “Doctor, can you stay a few moments and meet my son Ryan?” Without missing a beat, he replied, “Tell me about Ryan. What’s he like?”
She went on to tell him how proud she was of him. She listed his accomplishments, praised his marriage, and identified him as her pride and joy. Then she added, “Life as a single parent wasn’t easy. But if I’ve produced anything of value, it’s Ryan. I couldn’t be prouder of him.”
“It was a life altering moment,” Ryan recalls. “I got to hear things she had told her friends but never told me herself. In the midst of such profound suffering, it was pure grace.”
Value Creation Theory
Value Creation Theory suggests that value can be derived from any situation, no matter how tragic or heartbreaking – if we can find meaning in our sufferings. In this way, sufferings have the capacity to expand and deepen our humanity, help us develop greater empathy and understanding of others, and relieve us of petty grievances that confine us to a smaller sense of self. The inner transformation we experience by finding value in our sufferings expands our state of life and deepens our relationships. Those who view hardships in this way develop a boundless life force that is rarely defeated.
The Founder of Value Creation Theory
Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, an educator and Buddhist peace activist, first coined the phrase “value creation” in Japan during the late 1920s and formed a small study group of five educators to solidify value creation in elementary schools. Though years later Makiguchi was arrested and died in prison for refusing to cooperate with Japanese government’s war policies, he maintained his conviction in value creation right up to the end. In fact, in one of his last letters to his wife, Makiguchi implored her not to be discouraged by his situation. He assured her that he had no regrets, noting, “…Even hell can be enjoyable depending on your state of life.”
Today, the small study group Makiguchi formed has grown into an international organization promoting peace, culture, and education, with a membership of over 13 million.
From Theory to Practice
Value Creation Theory is more than just optimism. It requires an unending commitment to personal growth and a willful determination to create value in every situation. Though there are many paths to this end, I suggest beginning with the following four steps:
As I stated earlier, sufferings are inevitable and not likely to be a reflection of your personal failures or unlucky fate. Blaming yourself or your destiny for your circumstances only perpetuates and prolongs sufferings. Accepting your sufferings doesn’t mean giving up or succumbing to them, but rather seeing them clearly for what they are, then deciding your best course of action to create value from them.
Feelings such as sadness or despair get a bad rap these days, even though they are natural and necessary emotions. To do away with them would be to limit what it means to be human. That’s why it’s important to honor all your feelings and strive to give them expression. When you honor your feelings, you will begin to find value in them. For example, Victor Hugo wrote his most beautiful poems while mourning the loss of his daughter. He was able to take his despair, honor it, and use it as a creative force. Respecting and recognizing the Integrity of your feelings will help you open up new pathways in expression and creativity.
After the shockwave of misfortune wears off, it’s time to hunker down and convert your struggles into springboards for progress. This will require a commitment to personal evolution and growth. A key Buddhist concept in Makiguchi’s value creation is the ability to “turn poison into medicine.” Just as a vaccination strengthens our immunity system by giving us a dose of viruses, sufferings can be viewed as opportunities to lead us to a higher state of life. There are many books that support this belief, such as Intoxicated by My Illness by Anatole Broyard and Anatomy of an Illness by Norman Cousins. Rather than bemoan their fate, these individuals were able to face their sufferings and cull value from them.
The old adage, “Happiness shared is double, sufferings shared are halved” stands true. Isolating yourself or cutting yourself off from others only intensifies suffering and prolongs misery. True and lasting healing only occurs in the space between people. That means you’ll need to reach out and give and accept support from others. Such communal expression and mutual understanding is the best means to recover and find meaning in your experience.
The Path to Self-Renewal
Finding value in suffering is no easy task. To convert misfortunes into fuel for growth will require much self-discipline and determination. But if sufferings are inevitable, why not find a way to grow from them?
Take a moment and think of a person that is heroic to you. Chances are that he or she overcame immense obstacles and personal setbacks. We value such people for one simple reason: They give us hope.
If they can do it, so can we. Viewed from a broader perspective, all sufferings contain seeds of enlightenment. Whether those seeds spout or not is up to us.