Thursday, April 20, 2006

Introductory Talk on Ethical Wills

This morning I did a "Create A Legacy of Your Lifetime" talk at our senior center in Eugene. Seven people showed up for the 1-1/2 hour introduction to ethical wills -- five women and two men (one by himself, the other with his wife). Amazingly, a 98 year old woman came with her daughter (she wants to record the family stories that only "Mom" knows).

In my introduction, I share what I've learned about ethical wills and why I decided to begin speaking about my experience -- then talk about what they are, why to do one for yourself, when to begin (sooner the better!), and various approaches people use in writing an ethical will. Then I ask the participants to join me in a "reflection exercise" so they can get an idea of what types of questions are helpful in generating content for their ethical will. (I will share that exercise in a future post -- since the document file isn't on my laptop).

After we individually write our responses to the reflection questions, I ask people to share what they wrote with one other person in the group. The room quickly begins "buzzing" with conversation -- full of energized sharing about important experiences in people's lives. Whenever I do this exercise, it feels like the conversations could go on for hours -- but, unfortunately, I have to bring the discussions to the close to finish at our promised time.

This morning, with seven participants, I had the honor of being paired with the 98 year old woman for our reflections sharing. I wish I would have had a tape recorder to capture all that I heard about her life in just 10 minutes -- about growing up on a small farm in eastern Tennessee (where she learned thriftyness and tea-totaling from her parents), about being sent off to live with relatives in a town 15 miles from home so she could go to high school (her sister stayed at home), about saving money until she had $300 that allowed her to begin going to college (in the late 1920's), about working at various jobs for 25 and 50 cents an hour to stay in college and graduate in 1932, then going one to graduate school in Botany -- and working 5 long years toward her doctorate (a "mistake" to stay so long, she said, because her male professor blocked her from getting the PhD she had worked so hard for). She left school and went on to qualify and work in civil service jobs for 40 years. I asked her how long she was married. "Over 60 years", she said with tears welling up in her eyes " a Botantist!" There was lots more to say ... and lots more I would have loved to ask her about her life ... but we had to move on. What a blessing those few minutes of one-to-one time with her were for me!

I fervently hope the life story, the life lessons, and wisdom of this incredible woman get down on paper or tape recorded for sharing with current and future generations of women (and men who never knew how badly women of her generation were treated by the patriarchal "fathers" and corporate systems of her day ... and continuing into her daughter's generation ... and still alive today in many parts of our country and the world).

My talk concludes with a discussion of when to share an ethical will with family and friends (while still alive, I wholeheartedly recommend!), with some ideas on how to do it (special celebrations, important anniversaries or birthdays), and some ways to preserve ethical will documents so they'll last for generations. I ask for questions and feedback from participants (which sparks enjoyable converation and gives me excellent input for improving the introductory session)-- then share ideas for "what next?" (join an ethical will writing group, do one by yourself with "start-up" reflection questions from my handouts and from ethical will books, or get individual help from me or a friend who shares your interest).

Before people leave, I always encourage them to do an ethical will for themselves most of all. It's a worthwhile experience to take time to reflect on your life and "harvest" your life learnings -- no matter what your age. Then share your ethical will with family and friends when the time is right for you. Keep your values, stories, and wisdom alive for future generations!
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