The Ethical Will|
Courtesy of Mike Moldeven, Del Mar, CA
This is one of several essays that I previously posted in America OnLine's *SeniorNet* and elsewhere in AOL and on the Internet, and I thought it might interest readers of this net, especially social activities staff at senior centers and other places where older adults reside or gather for social interaction. The essay was also an item in my *Too-Faraway Grandparents Newsletter* and *A Grandpa's Notebook* (both, I regret, now out-of-print and out-of-stock), and a handout at seminars at which I spoke and at other places where it might come to the attention of older adults. Often, the subject generated lively discussions and the feedback was great.
The essay is not intended to be nor to suggest the writing of an "autobiography," nevertheless, the process compels a summing up or, at least, serious reflections on one's life. (The essay is based on the book *Ethical Wills* edited by Jack Riemer; published by Schoken Books, N. Y.)
The Ethical Will
Some years ago I read a book that discussed *ethical wills* and included examples that had been written over the centuries by men and women who wanted to leave a final message to their families and friends. I reviewed the book's various formats and commentaries and drafted a model that I thought might be useful to others who were contemplating such a document. (Occasionally, exception was taken during discussions to designating the will as *ethical*; be that as it may, I've retained the term here for consistency with the source).
During one seminar in which the process was reviewed, a participant said that he considered the format to be uniquely suited to his immediate needs for an appeal he was preparing to his children toward resolving a serious rift in the family -- so here was another and unexpected application for the process.
The "ethical will" is explained in the book as a final personal message to the living from a parent, grandparent -- someone -- to survivors who are of the highest significance to the writer. A close friend, an attorney, a trusted family member knows that the will exists, its location, and when and to whom it should be delivered or its location made known.
An "ethical will" is not easy to write - nor to read. The writer probes and evaluates personal convictions and biases, and confronts reality rather than perceptions and illusions. The process compels self-examination of what had been learned over a lifetime, facing up to failures as well as successes, and deciding what really counted in the long run. Examining one's thoughts and motives for an "ethical will" includes whether such a document should really be written.
The "will" can be taped, if that is easier or more appropriate. If time permits, drafts might be set aside for a few weeks or months, then critically reviewed by the author. Will what was written be meaningful, or even significant, to those who read it? Visualize it being read aloud to the family by a spouse or other member of the family.
The language in the following model is intentionally general and (I hope) non-contentious:
In writing this, I have no premonitions of an early demise or of other untoward events. On the other hand, and as you note from when this was written, I am now well along in years. It is time, perhaps, for me to contemplate once again what I've done and left undone as a father and as a grandfather. I say 'once again' but this time my advanced age presses me to record my thoughts for all of you to read or listen to at a suitable time after I am gone.
If this is being read, then my Last Will and Testament, has, most likely, been read and its conditions noted. On the assumption that my death will precede Mom's (to you grandkids, Grandma's), my Will disposed of certain material things that Mom and I agreed need no longer clutter up our home. Also, as Mom's living arrangements will likely need adjustment, what would Mom do with the sudden excess?
I hope my disposition of substance did not create ill feelings; the decisions seemed reasonable when I made them. Should you feel like trading back and forth later on, feel free; you've all been doing that with gifts from Mom -- or Grandma -- and me since you were knee-high. What I've stipulated as going to you grandkids should not be sold or switched about until you've reached 18. I think you'll better understand why you got what you did when you're older. You might even conclude Grandpa was right -- again.
I am far more concerned that you hear me on a matter far more important than mere substance. As a salaried worker, and later as a businessman, my outlook on the world was pragmatic and, I hope, not overly sanctimonious. I recall being referred to more than once as a practical guy. And yet, in these latter years, I've questioned both my doubts and my certainties with a deeper awareness than I feel I've had previously; perhaps it's an expanded intuition and sensitivity that accompanies aging.
I've come to accept that there is purpose to our universe, and therefore purpose to us who are of its essence. To me, to be without purpose is to be without meaning; all of life, all of us, would be meaningless. I reject a meaningless life -- a meaningless family. I hope that, in time, each of you will also accept that our lives have meaning, therefore purpose, and guide yourselves and your progeny accordingly.
Live together in harmony. Consider the family when an issue foments stresses among you. Help each other in times of need and turmoil even though you reside at great distances and your lifestyles and outlooks on life differ greatly.
Honor and care for Mom -- Grandma. Make her old age happy years, as far as it is in your power to do so. She more than deserves such consideration from each of you. You have heard Mom gently reproach me at times about my not giving enough attention to my children and grandchildren. She always wanted more for each of you. Be worthy of her devotion.
Carry the family heritage with dignity. Though you discard customs and rituals you consider trivial, bear in mind many have come down the centuries and withstood the tests of time and travail.
Do not mourn me. I have enjoyed my life. Move on, using for good purposes the knowledge and skills you have acquired over the years. You will serve your family best by serving humankind.
Remember me affectionately as your Dad and Grandpa
*** Carefully and honestly crafted, an *ethical will* can, indeed, be an enduring communication across the generations ***
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