Does my life have meaning? How will I be remembered? What kind of legacy will I leave behind? How can we harness some of the meaning and purpose of our lives and keep it from being lost or buried with us? Encapsulating our wisdom of life, our values, the lessons we have learned from adversity, where we have garnered strength, our beliefs and values and our prayers and blessings for loved ones and community can all be captured by writing a Wisdom Will®. A Wisdom Will is a legacy letter originating from the ancient Jewish Tradition on an ethical will. (I did not like the connotations attached to the word ethical, so I trademarked the name Wisdom Will.) It is a letter that links us to our survivors for generations and is a priceless and timeless treasure. Less daunting than a memoir, this grand gesture is an easy way to pass on our life’s learning and our wisdom of life.
Dr. Barry K. Baines book, Ethical Wills: Putting your values on paper inspired me to explore the Jewish tradition of the ethical will. In their tradition, the ethical will is a Mitzvah, or commandment, something God ordains one to do.
This practice dates back more than 3000 years. The first generally regarded evidence is in the Old Testament, Genesis Chapter 49. On his death bed, Jacob gathers his twelve sons around him so that he might bequeath his blessings, instructions and advice. In the New Testament, Christians find Jesus offering the same to his apostles. The practice of passing on one’s personal legacy, or one’s cultural legacy is not unique to Judaism. It is common among many ethnic and religious groups.
In antiquity the tradition was oral. When writing became common, ethical wills were written and read to loved ones and friends after death. Through the years, the practice lost its significance and few people wrote them. After 9/11, they began to resurface. The unpredictability of life smacked all of us in the face. We were forced to acknowledge that the unexpected happens. How wonderful it would have been for the families of those who perished in this tragedy to have Wisdom Wills from their loved ones. “Your Uncle Don died in Tower 1, but this is what life meant to him and what he wanted us to remember him for.” A Wisdom Will is something tangible to hang onto in times of overwhelming grief, bringing our loved one close to us even after they are gone.
Wisdom Wills bequeath wisdom; legal wills bequeath valuables. The greatest inheritance we can give or receive is one from the heart, and a document such as this comes from the very core of our being–an intimate place. In order for this learning to become long-lasting, we must share it.
Dr. Ira Byock, author of Dying Well, says that there are 5 tasks that people need to complete to experience relationship completion and peace at death. They are saying forgive me; I forgive you; thank you; and I love you. As death nears, the final task is to say goodbye (140).
These days, people are writing Wisdom Wills™ at turning points in their lives–before the birth of a child, prior to major surgery, when hearing one is terminally ill, before a graduation or Bar/Bat Mitzvah, soldiers in wars, losing a spouse or partner, and other life changing points as well as when one hears about them and becomes interested. Wisdom Wills are part of one’s legacy planning.
Though these documents vary in length from one to forty pages or more, we all have a plethora of information to mull over. David H. Kuhl, M.D., remarks,
Meaning, values, and purpose in life are often difficult to describe or speak about. The simplicity of childhood—right and wrong, black and white, true and false—changes to shades of gray and uncertainty in adulthood. Some people find comfort in religion or other spiritual practices. What was the religious tradition in your childhood, in your home, in your community? Have you ever had a religious experience? How did it come about? What were the immediate and long-term effects? Are there symbols in your life that are important to you? What principles guide your life? How does nature fit into your understanding of meaning or spirituality? What has given your life meaning in the past? Have there ever been times when your life felt meaningless? How has your sense of spirituality changed [over the years]? (What Dying People Want 152).
As a writing launch, consider composing a personal mission statement. The following is my personal mission statement:
I endeavor to live my life recognizing the equality of all human beings; seeking the light in others—no matter how difficult. I endeavor to be a messenger of compassion, hope and peace to those who suffer; doing all that I can to protect the planet; and, with God’s help, walk always in the footsteps of love.
These declarations are short and succinct, helping define who we are and what we stand for; they are tuning forks for living. We all embrace personal standards for living; these are the essence of our mission statements. Forming these ideals in word form may be a greater challenge than composing the entire Wisdom Will.
I like people to close their document with a statement such as: “I’d like to be remembered as….” My children often refer to me as a Lucille Ball, but I’d rather be remembered as a compassionate person, one who cared about humanity and tried to alleviate suffering wherever I found it. We have some control in how we will be remembered if we express our wishes in our Wisdom Will.
Wisdom Wills™ encapsulate the best of our past, present and future. Not meant to harass people from the grave, these documents are intended to uplift, give encouragement and are opportunities to share life strategies with others. They are positive documents.
Some people use a stream of consciousness approach selecting what they want to write about from it, or they make a list of questions to draw from. Limit what you talk about to a maximum of ten main points unless you want to write an autobiography or memoir. While these too are wonderful legacy documents, Wisdom Wills are shorter and more succinct. As works in progress, add to them from time to time as you grow. You may want to attach addendums; for example, family legends and stories.
Trust your instincts—look to the past to identify life’s pivotal points; look to the present for where you find strength, hope, joy and love and look to the future to offer sentiments and blessings, hope and encouragement.
Today is a good day to envision your legacy. Today is a good day to start writing. ##
Linda Ross Swanson offers individual Wisdom Will consultations and workshops for 6 people or more. To arrange a consultation or workshop please call her at 503.267.7550.