Remembering What Matters Most

I ’ve done a lot of thinking about my own mortality these past few months, in the thick of the pandemic. Like most people, I’m not easy with pondering my own demise, and even less comfortable planning for it.

But I’ve discovered that thinking about death has forced me to consider what matters most in life: family, friends and long-held passions.  It’s been an unexpectedly comforting meditation, unearthing old memories, untold stories and life lessons I’ve picked up over many decades. It struck me, not for the first time, that while we often define our lives by the material treasures around us, it’s the life lessons we learn, the wisdom we gain and the stories we pass on to the next generation that truly define our legacy.

My musings got me thinking about ethical wills, a particular kind of storytelling where the focus isn’t on the timeline of a life, but the values that bind us together.

The ethical will has been around since Biblical times. In fact, there’s a reference to the tradition in Genesis 49 when a dying Jacob calls his sons to his tent, determined to give each of the 12 some very specific advice.  

One of the most famous early ethical wills, written in the 11th century, comes from a Spanish doctor, Judah ibn Tibbon. The document, which runs over 50 pages, is packed with detailed advice for his son Samuel on an slew of subjects, from telling him to study medicine and the Torah, to ordering him to honor his wife. Apparently eager to leave no stone unturned in Samuel’s life, the anxious father even spelled out how his son should care for the family library:

Never refuse to lend books to anyone who has not the means to purchase books for himself, but only act thus to those who can be trusted to return the volumes. Cover the bookcases with rugs of fine quality and preserve them from damp and from mice, for your books are your greatest treasure…

Modern ethical wills have come a long way from those ancient scrolls. To start, they come in curiously creative packages — films, digital recordings, handwritten letters, illustrated books, a collage of beloved photos, a laundry list of ideas — and can be addressed to anyone the writer thinks should read them. I heard of one case in which a young mother, diagnosed with terminal cancer and longing to leave her two daughters her best advice, bundled together a packet of letters for each girl to read on the most important days of her life — 21st birthday, graduation, wedding, becoming a parent.

Recognizing the emotional clout of ethical wills, lawyers are increasingly adding them to their estate planning toolbox too. As the Vermont attorney William Deveneau explains:  

For the most part we leave the decision to write an ethical will up to the client, but we do tell them that if they want their values, life lessons and advice to be passed on to the next generation, they need to put it in writing or it’s unlikely to ever happen.

This is especially true, Deveneau says, if there’s potential for a quarrel when the legal will is read.

If there’s the possibility that the [legal] will might infuriate people, I suggest including an explanation. I’ve found that explaining the values and emotions behind the decision can help soothe conflict among the descendants.

Sometimes an ethical will goes well beyond a family legacy, posing instead as a speech that powerfully addresses the writer’s hopes and dreams for the next generation. In this month of cancelled graduations, I’m reminded of Steve Job’s poignant commencement address at Stanford. Standing before the Class of 2005, believing in that moment he’d survived cancer, Jobs bequeaths the graduates his lessons on life. Emotional and inspiring, the man who changed the tech landscape forever told the crowd that coming close to death had forced him to look at what was most important in his life. Don’t settle, he urged them, do what you love.

…Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition…

The speech ends, as any will should, learning from the past and looking toward the future: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”

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