Time to Look Back at My Ethical Will

An ethical will is a personal document that you can create to communicate your values, experiences,and life lessons to your family.

These are fierce and challenging times. I need to revisit the language in my ethical will. I have written about it before — a refresher follows.

An “ethical will” documents values and beliefs. The idea is to identify and describe what you believe to be most important principles in your life, lay them out for future generations to consider — a legacy of a different kind. As my daughter said when I described the process to her originally. “That’s huge, mother.” And it is. It may be one of the most significant writing assignments you will ever undertake.

Traditionally the term “legacy” refers to something tangible handed down from an ancestor and/or the disposition of things such as money and property. For example, “Who gets grandma’s yellow pie plate?” This is different. I have surfaced countless illustrations, and they are usually quite powerful.

If you are inclined to follow through on this, there are websites to reference. “Living Wisely: Your Best Life on Purpose” (www.livingwisely.org) is one option to consider. It offers the reminder to “Live your life as you wish to be remembered.” There is also a book that vividly describes the writing process, “Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper” by Barry K. Baines.

Sometimes ethical wills or “legacy letters” examine individual and family strengths. Others retell dreams, realized and unrealized. They often include religious commitments or references to spirituality, but not always. Many of the documents I’ve reviewed involve situations where relationships have gone off track and forgiveness is needed. When that is evident, the book “The Four Things That Matter Most: A Book About Living” by Ira Brock is sometimes mentioned.

From my own experience, once the writing process is launched, it’s a struggle. At least, it was for me. And maybe it needs to be. It’s also a little contagious — my husband has been enchanted by the concept and he doesn’t “enchant” easily.

The process of creating an ethical will is not typically included in end-of-life planning, but maybe it should be. My existing document is in the same folder as my advance directive. It reflects the philosophy in the “The Four Agreements,” a treatise by the Hispanic healer and teacher Don Miguel Ruiz. It starts with, “Be impeccable with your word.” I have always thought that principle should be written in permanent marker in large letters on the foreheads of all politicians. Can you imagine if we were all “impeccable” with our words? Now that’s huge.

The other “agreements” in the Ruiz book involve not taking things too personally or making assumptions without fact. Finally, he offers, “Always do your best.” Doing your best, as this author sees it, assumes repetition. You keep trying to put your optimal self forward, repeatedly in any and every situation.

These are fierce and challenging times. It is more important than ever to be our best selves. Perhaps we can make that contagious.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor emeritus, Oregon State University, and the author of “How Gray in My Valley: Enlightened Observations About Being Old.” 

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