There are several key elements in a contemporary spiritual-ethical will. First, it’s important to differentiate legacy writing from memoir or spiritual autobiography. Though the content may be similar, the intention for writing a spiritual-ethical will is to transmit love and learning to future generations. At the very core its purpose is to transform the ancient traditional instructions (what modern wants to be controlled from the grave?) into the more explicitly spiritual “blessings” for future generations. Central to this writing is the integration of the larger context of our times that shape us with our own personal experience and learning.
An example is this letter, written recently in a legacy circle, that meets these criteria and will be a treasure to the writer’s grandchildren:
Dear Jessie, Nick and Melissa:
You were aware—you were here to witness the most historically important event of my lifetime. I want to give you some background to the miracle of Barack Obama’s swearing-in ceremony, as he became the President of the United States of America.
In 1952 when I was 10 years old, my dad and mom drove our family to Florida. It was my first time driving through the South and the first time I remember seeing ‘negroes’. Their dilapidated houses, which we called shanties, lined the sides of the roads, sometimes had only three walls, some had boards missing on the roofs. My nose was pressed to the window and I felt pity and curiosity and confusion and fear. I didn’t know about life beyond Edina and downtown Minneapolis. We stopped to get something to eat and I wouldn’t eat the food from their stores, accepting only a coke because it was in a bottle.
In the '50s and '60s my eyes were further opened by protests and civil rights workers killed and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, and race riots as the struggle for equal rights played itself out. What an awful truth knowing that our country was wrong, when I had been raised to believe we were close to perfect and comprehending some of the ‘truth’ of the lives of African Americans. The knowledge that life is horribly unfair and my blessed life was an accident of birth was humbling and in some way shameful.
During the fall of 2004 I was invited to attend a gathering to meet a young black man running for the Illinois senate seat. He had spoken at the Democratic Convention and I was impressed by his vision for America. When he arrived on the lawn of a Lake Harriet mansion I can only tell you that there was an aura around him. I didn’t have to see him to know where he was. I don’t remember what he said, only that he excited and inspired all of us. This young charismatic man, who happened to be black, with grace and passion shared his belief that we could become a better nation. Finally, I had found someone I wanted to support, this man who filled me with hope that he and we could bring about change. He believed in the greatness of our people, as I was horrified that my countrymen were about to re-elect George Bush. When Barack decided to run for president I feared that our people were still asleep and wouldn’t hear his message, but he won Iowa and the impossible no longer was. Everywhere men and women of all backgrounds were listening and starting to believe that we could be THE United States of America, that honesty and openness, caring for those who are vulnerable and leading by example were values worth fighting for. This man, Barack Hussein Obama, who happened to be black, brilliant and articulate, compassionate and idealistic, shared his ideas and he was heard.
Martin Luther King, Jr. asked that we not be judged by the color of our skin but rather by the content of our character and that day – November 4, 2008 – arrived in my lifetime. The enormity of the emotions of that night and the days to follow cannot be expressed in words. We celebrated, we cheered, we laughed, we hugged each other and many of us wept because the joy was too deep, the significance too great and the price too heavy, and we continue to weep and to rejoice.
The lesson witnessed is that ANYTHING is possible and dreams can come true.
My prayer for you, dear loves of my life, is that you pay attention to the world around you and not just your world. That you see others through eyes of love and not fear, that you are quick to see the similarities and slow to see the differences. I pray that you are open to the miracles all around you and the divine in all you meet.
Melissa, Nick and Jessie, each of you is a miracle and each divine.
I love you, Baba.
© 2009 Martha A. Lewis
Rachael Freed, LICSW, LMFT, is a Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota's Center for Spirituality and Healing. Her work empowering ordinary people to document their legacies and create spiritual-ethical wills can be accessed in her books, Women's Lives, Women's Legacies: Passing Your Beliefs and Blessings to Future Generations and The Women's Legacies Workbook for the Busy Woman. More at www.life-legacies.com and 612-558-3331. A pioneer in family-centered care in life-threatening and chronic illness, she founded Minnesota's first hospital-based program for families of the dying, and is the author of Heartmates: A Guide for the Spouse and Family of the Heart Patient, providing resources for the emotional and spiritual recovery for families of heart patients.