Do you remember that scene in the movie Superman (the one with Christopher Reeve) where he goes to the North Pole for a bit of alone time? He brings along a bag of crystals which he tosses into the snow and that organize themselves into the ultimate snow cave. He then places the master crystal – the green one I think – into his newly erected icy console and, lo-and-behold, his father (by now long dead) starts talking to him and imparting life lessons.
Released back in 1978, Superman is still the ultimate depiction of an ethical will in all of video cinema (although My Life is also worth watching as an example of the ethical will in a modern narrative film). It was through the magic of those crystals that Clark Kent was able to learn that he is more than just the adopted son of those kind but limited, aging mid-western farmers. And he is able to learn what his responsibilities will be living among us poor benighted human kind.
In the real world, an ethical is not very different to the one Supe’s Dad packed for him (just as Krypton exploded). But, instead of those crystals, we have – of course – the video camera and DVDs.
So, what is an ethical will?
An ethical will is a message to future generations about values, beliefs and life lessons. It can also cover more business-like matters, such as wishes for your funeral, recipients for small gifts, or even instructions in the event of medical emergency (“health care proxies”). Sometimes called “spiritual wills” or “legacy letters”, the idea is to pass on the intangibles of a well-lived life. A testamentary will conveys your possessions; an ethical will conveys your thoughts and beliefs and can impart life lessons or bestow deep and personal blessings on others.
Difficult economic times seem to have contributed to the increasing popularity of ethical wills. With so many personal savings accounts crushed by the Great Financial Crisis, people are realizing that treasure can be lost, but values are eternal. So creating an ethical will (in writing or on video) has never been more important.
Whether you plan to create an ethical will on video or in writing (or on Powerpoint or in a scrapbook or on an audio tape) the process is largely the same.
Step 1: Who is the beneficiary?
First, you must decide who the beneficiary will be of your spiritual letter. As in any communication, knowing your audience will help determine the subjects you cover, and your words. And ethical will meant to be heard by grown up children will likely be a little different to an ethical will which you intend your grandchildren to watch. It may be that you choose to address different people with different parts of the legacy letter.
Of course, you must factor in that no matter what your intentions are, ultimately you will not be able to control the audience for your ethical will.
Step 2: Decide what to include
Next, jot down a list of topics that you would like to cover. It might include some life event and the lesson your draw from it? More than one person has lived to regret having taken shortcuts with their education and use their ethical will to instruct their grandchildren otherwise. Is it to tell the children that, despite everything, you are proud of and happy with them and happy with their choices in life? As parents, we can be overly judgmental and spiritual wills are a chance to set the record straight once and for all.
Perhaps you feel the need to explain some decision you made, or direction that you took. Are there values you wish your descendants to follow? Do you want to record family history? Maybe you just want to say “thank you for all the love and support”.
Step 3: What form should you use?
Third, decide how you want to record your ethical will. Pen and blank paper is the quickest. Or, you may choose to get a book that will guide you through the process and that provides guided space for your writing (“The Wealth of Your Life” by Susan Turnbull is one such book). For a more personal approach, you may record your voice on audio.
Or, as I always recommend, you may decide to talk about your life on video. Video is a form of immortality, if you think about it. And words spoken on camera have an immediacy and an emotional impact for which there is really no equal. Up there in the ice and snow, Superman actually heard his father’s voice – he didn’t just read a letter (hastily scrawled in Kryptonese).
Step 4: Things to watch out for
Fourth, you must get down to tin tacks. Start with an outline built from your topics and then flesh it out. If your ethical will is going to be written down, then there may be a number of drafts. If you plan to create a written spiritual letter, then all you will need will be your notes. If the ethical will is to be set down on video in an interview format, then the interviewer will have your topics and will be able to prompt your answers.
There are some things to watch out for when composing your legacy letter:
Don’t use your ethical will to settle scores or to have the last word. Say nothing that you can ever imagine regretting.
Be careful about singling out one person for special praise or thanks. Unavoidably, you will cast others into the shade which may not be your intention.
Don’t delay. Time speeds up the older you get and as a result it gets harder and harder to get things done.
Don’t fuss about your appearance. Future generations are interested in who you were and what was important to you.
Try to be uplifting. In her book, Susan Turnbull gives this example of a couple addressing their young children:
“We hope that you will always look outside yourselves and consider the perspective of others… We hope that you will be aware of what is going on in your community and how events are affecting people there…”