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My ethical will needs a fresh look

I need to revisit the language in my ethical will. Do you ascribe to that concept? I’ve written about it before — a refresher follows.

An ethical will outlines values and beliefs. It describes what you see as the most important principles in your life and lays them out for future generations to consider — a personal statement about a life well lived. Although, some of the most poignant documents I’ve seen articulate the parts of life people wish they had lived differently. The writing process can actually be very cleansing.

Traditionally the term “legacy” refers to something tangible handed down from an ancestor and/or the disposition of things like money and property. This is different. I have surfaced countless illustrations, and they are fascinating.

If you are inclined to follow through on this, there are websites to reference. “Living Wisely: Your Best Life On Purpose” (www.livingwisely.org) is just one option to consider. It offers the reminder to, “Live your life as you wish to be remembered.” There’s also a book vividly outlining the writing process, “Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper,” by Barry K. Baines.

Sometimes ethical wills or “legacy letters” examine individual and family strengths. Others retell dreams, realized and unrealized. The documents often include religious commitments or references to spirituality, but not always. Many of the statements I’ve reviewed involve situations where relationships have gone off track and forgiveness may be needed. One of the best examples used the phrase, “If I have erred in my dealings with you, I am sorry. I trust you will forgive me.”

The book “The Four Things That Matter Most: A Book About Living” by Ira Brock is sometimes mentioned as a powerful writing resource. From my own experience, once the writing process is launched, it can be a struggle. At least, it was for me. And maybe it needs to be. My husband embraced the idea years ago and was enchanted by the concept — and he doesn’t enchant”easily. His ethical will is masquerading as a memoir reflecting on just one year of his life — 1968 (think Vietnam, racial unrest).

This type of writing is not typically included in end-of- life planning, but maybe it should be. We have had two deaths in our family in the past year, which gives this concept new immediacy. My existing document is in the same folder as my advance directive. It reflects the philosophy in “The Four Agreements,” a treatise by the Hispanic healer and teacher Don Miguel Ruiz. It starts with, “Be impeccable with your word.”

I have always thought that principle should be written in permanent marker in large letters on the foreheads of all politicians. Can you imagine if we were all “impeccable” with our words?

The other “agreements” in the Ruiz book involve not taking things too personally or making assumptions without fact. Finally, he offers, “Always, do your best.” Doing your best, as this author sees it, assumes repetition. You keep trying to put your optimal self forward, repeatedly in any and every situation. Always and forever.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor emeritus, Oregon State University. Reach her at sharjohn99@gmail.com.