Personal Legacies: Inspiring from the grave?

Neal Conan, Talk of the Nation, discussed the idea of ethical wills on 5/30/07. “We all know we’re supposed to draw up wills that leave instructions about our worldly goods, but some people want to pass down a less quantifiable legacy as well, a statement of values, of beliefs, family traditions, advice to family, friends or associates, and maybe even resolve old arguments or family secrets. There are documents for those too. They’re called ethical wills or moral trusts.”

One guest called this ethical will a “love letter to your family” (Linda Lipinski of ALegacyToRemember) to bequeath ones values, not one’s valuables.  The name ethical will is misleading because some of the experts suggested sharing this with relatives while one was alive.

Listeners Tanya wisely questioned why if someone lives their life by their moral values and communicates with their children, why do they need to put in writing.  An expert said that it was to ensure that these values passed beyond the next generation, although the examples of ethical wills often seemed more designed to try to leave a paper record of what a person wished they stood for or to put a deceased’s spin on history.

I can certainly see how such an exercise could be useful in the middle school or high school years for students to try to articulate what they want their life to stand for, what they hope their legacy will be, and what values they want to exemplify.  But if one is trying to tell one’s relatives what one’s values are, it’s way too late. Listener Jerry recalled a book by Jack Smith, columnist for the L.A. Times entitled “Spend All Your Kisses”, as a reminder that the time for sharing love or kisses is not from the grave.  And listener Scott noted that others, not you determine one’s legacy.  One can only set a wonderful example and hope that it moves and inspires others.

I highly recommend *Just Enough *by Laura Nash and Howard Stevenson, which focuses on how to live one’s life in accord with one’s hoped-for legacy and how to achieve balance between success and legacy.

In short I believe that one’s actions while alive are much more likely to influence others (friends, children, relatives) than directions or advice put in a will.   And improve one’s communication and ties with one’s relatives while alive so that you can be close and inspire one another; this is likely to have far greater an impact on social capital and on “one’s legacy.”   With luck, if they are inspired, they may ask you to write up some of your values or beliefs and such a requested letter is likely to have far greater influence than when someone decides that they have wisdom that others ought to hear.

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