Some years ago a psychologist in town asked to come tointerview me for a book he was writing about wills. He told me that he was collecting data on decisions people were making in wills that were causing problems they didn’t anticipate, as well as the punitive decisions to cut people out of the will for various reasons; causing problems they did anticipate!
During the interview he told me about some unusual wills. For example there was a woman in town who had two heirs, both were middle-aged, unmarried sons; she was disappointed that neither of them married and gave her a grandchild. Her will stipulated that the family house would go to whichever son got married first.
He told me that both of these bachelors were married within three days, and were at the time of our interview, fighting over the house.
The psychologist-author wanted to counsel people to write wills that would not cause unnecessary family feuds after their death – wills that were thoughtful and sensitive, even when family issues were complicated…wills that were fair. He wanted to counsel people not to be punitive, not to keep the bad feelings going even after death; not to keep trying tocontrol the family even after you’re gone.
So he was collecting stories of wills that caused problems.
The idea of an ethical will, as I’m using the term, is not about the disposal of tangibleproperty, however. An ethical will, as I’m using the term, refers to the message one leaves to loved ones, like those notes from underground that were written after the explosion in the coal mine in Sago, West Virginia.
I was thinking about the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Almost everything he wrote was a kind of ethical will; it was his legacy; it was about justice, equity and compassion. His entire ‘I have a dream’ speech is an ethical will.
Another example of an ethical will is the life of Rosa Parks. A news story following her death had the headline:
Rosa Parks’ legacy one of quiet heroism
The newspaper writer said, “In an age where politicians choose platforms based on polls and lawmakers and civil rights advocates issue press releases before embarking on any new project, Parks’ legacy of heroism rooted in simplicity should serve as a powerful example for all of us.”
I was struck by the phrase, ‘…legacy of heroism rooted in simplicity…’ She left an ethical will. She stood up by sitting down – thus leaving a ‘legacy of quiet heroism.’ Simple, but profound.
Recently I spoke from this pulpit about the Catholic Church’s ongoing discussion about what happens to the unbaptised after death; the question of limbo and the larger question of salvation. It raised the age-old question of salvation – who is saved, or who ‘goes to heaven?’ Our Universalist forbears talked about ‘salvation by character.’
One of my favorite Biblical references about this issue comes from the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew which says that ‘in the end time’ Jesus will say to those destined for heaven, or ‘salvation,’ “Come, O blessed of my Father and inherit the kingdom prepared for you, for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you came to me,” and so forth.
They answered, “But when did we see you hungry or thirsty or naked or sick?” He gave the famous answer, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”
This is the passage chosen by those who say that your religion is the way you live your life; it’s not about what you say you believe; it’s not about baptism; it’s not about belonging to a particular religious group; it’s not about going to church or temple or mosque or mountain-top meditation retreats. Your religion is the way you live your life.
I would add that your religion is about thoughtfulness: it’s about the way you think about what you’re doing, from day to day. It’s about intentionality. It’s about what you say to the waitress who made a mistake, or how you talk to the cashier or bagger at the supermarket, and so forth. It’s about the way a person feels after you’ve been in their presence for a few seconds, a few years, or for many years.
An ethical will is a term that is being used to describe the message one leaves – it might be a spoken or written message, or simply the message one leaves by the way they’ve lived.
People who write an ethical will attempt to summarize their values, beliefs, ideas—their essential philosophy, to leave as a legacy to children, grandchildren and unborn generations.
An ethical will attempts to summarize the essentials; to say what you’ve learned in the process of living your own life; to leave a kind of time capsule that contains your hopes and dreams; it’s a blessing or benediction; the final good word.
An ethical will may include words of forgiveness, attempting to put some old grievance to rest.
Ethical wills are often shared with family while the writer is still alive. A thoughtful, heartfelt ethical will may be one of the most cherished and meaningful gifts you can leave to your family and community.
Preparing a living will is part of an ethical will; it’s an attempt to avoid family members having to wonder about your end-of-life wishes.
Recently I was working with a family to prepare a memorial service for a woman who had died of cancer after a long struggle. Her husband handed me a journal in which she had been writing in the months before her death and asked me to take a look to see if there was anything in it that would help give a sense of her presence in the service. I shared appropriate passages and realized it was a kind of ethical will.
I found an example of a traditional ethical will written by a man named Michael A. Greenspan. He wrote:
“Having disposed of my property through duly executed documents, I now turn to the harder job of leaving to my children, Lisa and David, a set of principles that they should consider in living their own lives and in helping to shape the lives of their children.
- Do the right thing — as often as you can.
- Only worry about those things that you can do something about.
- Try as hard as you can, and, having done so, don’t look back if things don’t work out.
- Work hard, but stop before you mindlessly begin work to ask whether you have found the most efficient thing to work hard at.
- You are not the center of the universe. If it takes religion to make you realize that, then embrace religion.
- Happiness is NOT what feels good at the moment. You also have to consider the long-term consequences of your actions.
- Be positive; try to find the best in a bad situation.
- Be interested in a lot of things. People who are interested are interesting.
- Show everyone that you love that you love him or her, and be sure to tell him or her as well.”
Bettina Brickell was 29 years old when she died. This letter to her family and friends was read at her Memorial service.
Dear Friends and Loved Ones,
“As I contemplated this memorial service, I felt great gratitude in my heart that each of you would be here to say good-bye to me. Many of you have shared your warmth, kindness and love with me during these last months. I want to say thank you and good-bye and share with you the lessons I’ve learned through my (living and my) dying.
“I have profoundly experienced that love is all that matters. Like many people, I occasionally got caught in my pettiness … thinking I knew the right answer. I judged others and I have judged myself even more harshly. But I have learned that we carry within ourselves the abundant wisdom and love to heal our weary heart and judgmental mind.
“…we’re all doing the best we can. Judging others closes the heart … it’s a waste of precious (time.)
(As I write) “We are in the fall season. I feel privileged to die as the leaves fall from the trees. There is a naturalness to the cycle of life and death and for whatever reason, it is my time to die, even though I am young. It is OK. … Life is not about how long we live, but about how we live, and I have had a good life. I accept my dying as part of the wondrous process of life.
“My sadness is in leaving you. I’ll miss the deep comfort and love of gently waking up in Peter’s arms, (her husband) giving up our dreams of future years together. I’ll miss the sunny days of fishing with my dad, of sharing with my mom her love of life and cosmopolitan savoir-faire. I’ll miss giggling with my sister, Maria, over life’s impasses. How appreciative I feel when I think of my brother Michael’s faith and encouragement of me…
(Note how she left something specifically to her husband, mother, dad, sister and brother…as one leaves things in a traditional will; she personalized it. She continues:)
“As I lay dying, I think of all of you that I have loved and shared this life with, each special in your own way.
(She goes on as if writing a poem:)
“I reluctantly give up walking on this beautiful planet, where every step is a prayer. The glistening sun on the trees, the sound of a brook as it makes its way down the mountain, the serenity and beauty of a gentle snowfall, sitting at the rim of a Utah canyon and catching a glimpse of eternity–these are the things I have loved.
“I have been opened to the mystery of the Spirit and feel that divinity is all around us every day and provides us with a path on which our own spirit may take flight…my spirit has now taken flight…know that I loved you.
With my love, Bettina
A woman who wrote a help-column in the newspaper and had a call-in radio show, wrote: “I am not especially church-oriented, but every day I say that line from the Scriptures: “This is the day the Lord has made: Let us rejoice and be glad.”
“I do believe we have a responsibility to the larger community. The trick is figuring out how to contribute. That’s why Dad became a mentor to an urban kid. I tried to be helpful to readers and viewers who contacted me.”
It’s difficult to write an ethical will that isn’t too preachy; just as it’s a challenge to give a sermon that isn’t too preachy, or too long, or too personal.
It wasn’t until I started doing some research on ethical wills that I realized that I received such an inheritance:
Shortly before my father died one of my brothers brought a small cassette tape recorder to his house one day and said, “Talk into it. Here’s the record button; here’s the pause button.” For several hours that day my father turned the tape recorder on and off and left a message to each of his nine children – including the little girl who had died more than 50 years before.
He spoke to each of us, going down the birth order, the way we all had learned to rattle off the names.
It was a love letter, to be sure, from a very proud father; it was an affirmation of each of us. One thing he repeated several times is the fact, as he put it, that he was ‘the richest man alive.’
When he died, he had no money. (My mother quipped, “He had $62 in his pocket – I knew he was holding out on me!”) There was no will, but there was an enormous legacy.
I have received legacies from my beloved poets; many of which made it into my collections in the book of recorded poems, Natural Selections, and the CD Ed and I made which we called In Times of Trouble.
There’s a piece I often read at memorial services about living a successful life, which I sometimes preface by asking, “If you were asked to summarize the ingredients in a successful life in less than 150 words, what would you say?
The following piece offers a nice summary of a successful life; it’s usually attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson. I did a bit of research and found that the original was a short version was written by Bessie Anderson Stanley. She wrote, “He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much.” That line was published in a newspaper in 1904; in the same paper was a quote fr0m Emerson, and, as best I’ve been able to determine, that was the beginning of the mix-up.
The piece that has grown frm the original line – it’s a kind of ethical will with which to close these comments:
“To laugh often and love much. To win and hold the respect of intelligent persons, and the affection of little children. To earn the praise of honest critics and to endure, without flinching, the betrayal of false friends.
To appreciate beauty always, whether in earth’s creations or men and women’s handiwork. To have sought for and found the best in others and to have given it oneself.
To leave the world better than one found it, whether by nurturing a child or a garden patch, writing a cheery letter, or working to redeem some social condition.
To have played with enthusiasm, laughed with exuberance, and sung with exultation. To go down to dust and dreams knowing that the world is a little bit better, and that even an single life breathes easier because we have lived well, that is to have succeeded!”