Monday, February 25, 2008

Ethical Wills

For the past week, I've been trying to write something about ethical wills but the distractions are relentless.

I first learnt about ethical wills from an article in the September/October 2005 issue of Utne magazine. That article left a deep impression on me and I thought about it for a long time. Then recently I watched the video by Lakshmi Pratury on the letters her late father wrote to her. Something possessed me and I could not rest until I found that issue of Utne with the article. I reread the article and it did not lose its relevance.

Within the same week of rereading the Utne story, I stumbled on Barry K. Baines's Ethical Wills -- which coincidentally was mentioned in the Utne article. (I did not go looking for the book. I was looking through the shelves on writing and there it was, sitting on the library shelf. It was serendipity.) I picked up the book, and learnt a little more about ethical wills, with some advice on how to write one.

But first: what are ethical wills? How do they differ from the usual legal wills where we find out if Aunt Margaret left us her house, her jewelry and Peanut, her pet chihuahua?

Barry K Baines basically puts it down to this: legal wills bequeath valuables, while ethical wills bequeath values. (One might argue that Peanut the chihuahua isn't worth its weight in fertilizer, so it hardly counts as valuables. But one digresses.)

Ethical will is an ancient tradition practiced across many cultures. In the Bible, when Jacob calls his sons to his deathbed and he gives them his blessings, it serves as form of ethical will conveyed orally. It is still being practiced today, even if we may not always recognize what it is called.

Ethical wills are where we state, our hopes and blessings, for posterity. We reaffirm the values and beliefs that defines us. For example, a father might decide it is important to tell his children the family history. Or a mother might want to tell her children the importance of a good education. The writer may also choose to just relate personal stories, anecdotes, or express regrets, gratitude and funeral arrangements.

Who are the ones who will benefit most from ethical wills? According to Baines, it is women. "Women couldn't bequeath valuables, so they bequeathed values," he wrote.

The person that you are, the values you stand for –these are the things you can pass on, that no one can take them from you. In cultures where women have no say over property – and are often regarded as properties themselves – ethical wills are the only true legacy that women could leave behind.

The Utne article talked about Rachael Freed, a former English teacher and therapist, who argued for ethical wills as a means of empowering women. She runs the Women's Legacies project, which helps women write their ethical wills. She wanted her project to be more inclusive of women from all social classes, so she asked someone who worked in a prison: who will benefit most from ethical wills? The answer:

"The lifers," the prison official replied. "They are the ones who fear most not being remembered. Their families are doing their best to forget them."

Implicit in our ethical wills is the fear of obliteration. We would like a say in how we want to be remembered. That is why we feel the need to tie up the emotional loose ends of our lives. In our ethical wills we attempt to address past, present and the future.

Most of all, it is for those who are unable to say the things that needs to be said. It is the sad truth: we often leave too many things unsaid, too many things undone. Humans are creature with the capacity for regrets.

When is a good time to write ethical wills? Baines claims that there are two answers to this question: 1) when people are in a transitional period in their lives, 2) when a situation occurs that lead people to reflect on their lives. Transitional period could be the pending arrival of a child, marriage or whenever great changes occurs in our life. One does not have to be dying of cancer to prepare your ethical will. Everyone can benefit from setting down to paper our spiritual and emotional legacy. But I suppose what is said will be most meaningful when it is most heartfelt, when it matters most.

So why am I suddenly so interested in ethical wills? Am I going through a transitional period of my life? Has something occurred that caused me to reflect deeply on my life?

Back in 2005, after I read the Utne article, I thought about writing my own ethical will. There was a brief moment of sadness because it hit me: I have no children, and so there is no one I could leave a written legacy of my life to.

Then I thought about my mother; I wondered what she will write in her ethical will to me. There was one time when my mother over-explained an issue; later she told me: She has seen how over the years I had come to be resentful of her -- all because she rarely explains herself effectively. There lies all these misunderstanding between us. It has gone on for so long, one doesn't even know where to begin to resolve them.

That is true. But then again, according to my closest friends: the reason I am often misunderstood is because I don't explain myself enough. Ironic, isn't it? It feels almost like a genetic trait.

I am my mother's child. The inability to say what needs to be said is the failure between my mother and myself; the reason why our relationship is so strained.

Many times, I imagined the things my mother would like to tell me, but is unable to do so in person. It became an exercise in trying to understand my mother's hopes and expectations of me. What does she see when she looks at me? Is she proud of me? Does she love me? Does she know me at all? The answers proved difficult –- because if she doesn't even know who I am, the daughter she loves is not me – just a delusional image of someone she thought is her daughter.

I believe in an ethical will, partly because I believe it can provide a form of comfort, especially for someone towards the end of their life. But it is more important, to say what needs to be said while we are still alive. As I watched my parents decline in health in these recent years, I wonder: do we have enough time?

Sadly, I suspect there will always be too many things left unsaid between my mother and myself.


jenclair said...

I've never heard the term before, but the idea has impressed itself, because I have thought about this kind of legacy. What I wish my mother would have been comfortable saying and what I would like to say to may daughters. Part would be a little historical background and part would be hopes for their futures. I'm so glad you wrote about this and I'm going to see if I can find Baines' book!

darkorpheus said...

Jenclair Oh yes, please do.

And you can actually read the ethical wills to your daughters (if you wish) while you're still around. It kind of forces you to live life "a little more deliberately", as they say.