Monday, May 29, 2006

The Gift of Forgiveness

Yesterday I finished reading Gordon Livingston's book, Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things You Need to Know Now. Having previously read his second book (see my April archived post titled "Most People Die With Their Music Still Inside Them"), I once again enjoyed the wisdom Dr. Livingston shares from his lifetime of experience as a man, father, and psychiatrist. Among his 30 truths are: We are what we do. Any relationship is under control of the person who cares the least. Only bad things happen quickly. Nobody likes to be told what to do. Love is never lost, not even in death.

The last chapter of the book -- Forgiveness is a form of letting go, but they are not the same thing -- offers some insights that are instructive for creating an ethical will. An ethical will can provide a loving way to express forgiveness to people who may have harmed us at some point in our lives as well as give us an opportunity to ask for forgiveness from those we may have harmed. Ideally, forgiveness doesn't have to wait for your ethical will. But, if you've waited, I encourage you to consider what may need forgiving or forgiveness in your life today.

Dr. Livingston says:

"Certainly it is true that understanding who we are depends on paying attention to the history of our lives. This is why any useful psychotherapy included telling this story. Somewhere between ignoring the past and wallowing in it there is a place where we can learn from what has happened to us, including the inevitable mistakes we have made, and integrate this knowledge into our plans for the future. Inevitably, this process requires some exercises in forgiveness -- that is, giving up some grievance to which we are entitled.

Widely confused with forgetting or reconciliation, forgiveness is neither. It is not something we do for others; it is a gift to ourselves. It exists, as does all true healing, at the intersection of love and justice."

He goes on to say that "Coming to terms with our past is inevitably a process of forgiveness, of letting go, the simplest and most difficult of all human endeavors. It is simultaneously an act of will and of surrender. And it often seems impossible until the moment we do it."

In my own case, a troubled relationship with my father -- my tightly-held anger at his abuse and neglect in my childhood -- lasted far too many years of our lives, keeping both of us from healing. Ironically, our relationship taught me forgiveness in the deepest of ways. And, thankfully, I was blessed with the gift of forgiveness before he drifted into dementia in his early 70's. It made it possible for me love him -- to say "I love you" to him -- before the days in which he showed no sign of knowing who I was and why I was there, holding him in my arms as tears flowed from his sky-blue eyes ... and mine.
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Thursday, May 25, 2006

Spiritual Will & Ethical Will: Are They Different?

An ethical will has sometimes been called a "spiritual-ethical" will because it often has content which focuses on both your values and your life spirit. In my legacy work, I make a distinction between an "ethical" will and a "spiritual" will when a person intends to make the central focus of the document their journey of faith or religious journey rather than primarily focusing on their values and life lessons.

If you'd like to write a "spiritual will", I suggest you start with the questions that Kathleen Dowling Singh -- author of the superb book The Grace in Dying -- offered in her PBS interview with Bill Moyers in his series, "On Your Own Terms". Here's a link to an article based on their interview:

Taking A Spiritual Inventory

While some of the questions in this "spiritual inventory" could also be used in an ethical will, I think many of them allow you to go to a deeper level -- to the essence of your life spirit.

Another source for starting a spiritual will is Ten Eternal Questions by Zoe Sallis. She offers these 10 questions for your consideration (and provides answers from people like Nelson Mandela, The Dalai Lama, and many others who she interviewed for the book):

1. What is your concept of God?

2. Do you think this life is all there is, or do you believe in an afterlife?

3. Do you accept the concept of karma, in the sense of cause and effect?

4. What is you moral code, in relation to right and wrong?

5. Do you believe you have a destiny, and do you see yourself as here to fulfill it?

6. What has life taught you so far?

7. What advice or words of wisdom would you life to pass on to those close to you?

8. Do you believe our survival on planet Earth is being threatened?

9. Who do you most admire in this world, historical or living?

10. How do you find peace within yourself?

I would include questions 6, 7, and 9 in writing an ethical will while the others I consider more helpful for a spiritual will.

So are a "spiritual will" and an "ethical will" any different? Is making a distinction important or not? Perhaps, only in the mind of the writer (only this writer?) ... or the reader. Let me know what you think (click on "comments" below).

Spiritual Will & Ethical Will: Are They Different?SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Friday, May 19, 2006

Op-Ed Commentary in The Oregonian

Along with helping people create ethical wills, I've done community talks on the importance of completing advance directives for health care (often called "living wills"). An advance directive gives your family a gift of knowing your wishes for health care if you are close to death and cannot speak for yourself.

As a hospice volunteer and member of Partner's to Improve End-of-Life Care -- a non-profit community coalition ( -- I've also occasionally written editorial commentaries encouraging people to complete their advance directives. I submit the commentaries for publication in our local newspapers and The Oregonian in Portland which has a statewide readership.

I was pleased to learn that The Oregonian published my Op-Ed Commentary (May 15) about Terri Schiavo's legacy. You can read it at:


In early May, The Register-Guard in Eugene published a similar version of the commentary.

Hopefully, many readers of these newspapers and their on-line websites will take action and complete their advance directives.

Your advance directive, combined with your ethical will and legal will, provide a clear picture of your health care wishes, your values, and your material assets. I encourage you to complete all three documents. Give yourself and your loved ones these "gifts of a lifetime."
Op-Ed Commentary in The OregonianSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Friday, May 12, 2006

Finding Your Voice (Mary Pipher)

One of my favorite non-fiction writers is therapist Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia, Another Country, and The Shadow of Each Other. I was pleased to learn about her new book, Writing to Change The World, which I began reading this week.

In Pipher's chapter titled "What You Alone Can Say", she writes about finding your voice -- a subject I've commented about in regard to the importance of writing ("speaking") in your own voice in your ethical will. Mary writes that:

"Voice is everything we are, all that we have observed, the emotional chords that are uniquely ours -- all our flaws and all of our strengths, expressed in words that best reflect us. Voice is like a snowflake -- complicated, beautiful, and individual. It is essence of self, distilled and offered in service to the world."

Pipher goes on to say, "By diving into the experience of writing, you will learn what you truly think and who you really are. Your self-exploration is a way to pay attention to the work, within yourself and outside yourself, and to experience that Allen Ginsberg called 'surprise mind'. Try answering these questions on paper:

What makes you laugh, cry, and open your heart?

What points do you repeatedly make to those you love?

What topics keep you up at night, or help you fall asleep?

What do you know to be true?

What do you consider to be evil?

What is beautiful to you?

What do you most respect in others?

What excites your curiosity?

If you were the ruler of the world, what would you do first?

What do you want to accomplish before you die?"

What great questions to ask yourself in writing your ethical will (or a poem ... or song ... or a blog!)!

I'm going to add many of these questions to the "reflections exercises" I offer in my ethical will classes and write my own answers to all of them. I invite you to do the same ... and would love to hear how they helped you "find your voice".

Thank you, Mary Pipher, for your insights and for all the "writing to change the world" that you have done over the years!

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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Topic Outlines for An Ethical Will

If you're ready and willing to get started on your ethical will, here are two possible outlines for your use in organizing your writing (or taping an "interview" with yourself). Use them if you’d like, making additions and changes as desired, or create your own version.



State who you are addressing and what you hope to share in your ethical will.


Identify what has mattered most – what you’ve have stood for – in your life.

What did you devote most of your time to? For what reasons?


Describe important life experiences and what you learned from them.

Who were the most important people and how did they influence you?

Share about your name(s) and tell your story about growing up. Tell the stories that your grandparents told you (and what they told you about their ancestors).

Describe memorable family and worklife experiences and what they meant to you.


Share your spiritual beliefs and the faith that guided and sustained you during the “ups and downs” of your life.


Express your love to people you care about, ask for forgiveness if you have any regrets, and forgive those who may have hurt you.


Share your dreams and wishes for your family members, friends, and community.

Offer your personal “words of wisdom” and guidance for the lives of loved ones.


Express your gratitude to people who have loved and supported you on your life journey.

Give thanks for your life and bless those who follow in future generations.



State who you are addressing and what you hope to share in your ethical will.


Share about your name(s) and legacies you’ve received.

Tell ancestral stories that were told to you.

Share your own family stories that you’d like people to remember.

Include any photos and/or other remembrances from the past.


Share your values -- what has mattered most – what you’ve have stood for – in your life.

What did you devote most of your time to? For what reasons?

Describe important life experiences and what you learned from them.

Who were the most important people and how did they influence you?

Share your spiritual beliefs and the faith that guided and sustained you during the “ups and downs” of your life.

Include any photos and/or other remembrances from the present.


Express your love to people you care about, ask for forgiveness if you have any regrets, and forgive those who may have hurt you.

Share your dreams and wishes for your family members, friends, and community.

Offer your personal “words of wisdom” and guidance for the lives of loved ones.

Bless those who follow you in future generations of your family.


Express your gratitude to people who have loved and supported you on your life journey.

Give thanks for your life.

Whichever outline or elements of the suggested outlines you decide to use, remember that your ethical will is a personal expression of your heart ... your personal legacy of the life you've lived. So be sure that it “speaks” in your unique voice and that its content represents what has been most important in your life. Think of your ethical will as a heartfelt gift that you’re giving to future generations of your family, friends, and community.
Topic Outlines for An Ethical WillSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Examples of Ethical Wills

In our talks and classes, I encourage people to create an ethical will that best represents who they are, speaks in their unique voice, and employs a format that works comfortably for them -- either writing the document, audiotaping it, or videotaping for viewing by others. Audio and video versions should be transcribed to create a written document which can be more easily preserved (who knows what the next technology will be -- and whether our generation's old audio/videotapes will be able to be played in 2050? Remember the Beta vs. VHS format "battle"! Anyone seen a Beta videotape player lately?).

Participants often ask to see samples of documents others have created. I provide a couple of one to two page ethical wills and refer people to the many samples available on Barry Baines website, (see "Links"). A variety of documents done by people of different ages and life situations is provided at:

Examples of Ethical Wills

I also plan to provide "excerpts" from ethical wills done by people who previously took our class as well as some excerpts from my own document (which I'll share in a blog posting someday soon).

In my view, the most important thing is that people use their own creativity to envision an ethical will which genuinely represents their life spirit in both format and content. Some people incorporate photos of family, friends, mentors, and others who have influenced their life. Others include drawings or artwork they have created and clippings of old newspaper articles about them or major life-transforming events in their life. Or, they write a brief one-page "love letter" that blesses their family members and future generations.

It's your choice ... it's your life journey... it's your ethical will. And remember, the document can be changed and updated whenever you like ... and shared with loved ones now or later (but hopefully, before you've passed from this earth!).
Examples of Ethical WillsSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Friday, May 05, 2006

Healthy Aging & Ethical Wills

I was pleased to read what Andrew Weil, M.D. had to say about ethical wills in his latest book, Healthy Aging: A Lifelong Guide for Your Physical and Spiritual Well-Being:

"I can think of no better way to end this book than to recommend that you undertake the composition of an ethical will. No matter how old you are, it can be an exercise that will make you take stock of your life experience and distill from it the values and wisdom you have gained. You can then put the document aside, read it over as the years pass, and revise it from time to time as you see fit. Certainly, an ethical will can be a wonderful gift to leave your family at the end of your life, but I think its main importance is what it can give you in the midst of life."

He goes on to say in his "Twelve-Point Program for Healthy Aging" on the last page of his book:

"12. Keep an ongoing record of the lessons you learn, the wisdom you gain, and the values you hold. At critical points in your life, read this over, add to it, revise it, and share it with people you care about."

As a popular author, Dr. Weil's words of wisdom will be widely read and, I hope, will encourage more people to get started on an ethical will of their own.
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Thursday, May 04, 2006

Grandbob's Letter on Grandbaby Wisdom

Today's column by Bob Welch in our local newspaper was a great example of a "love letter" to the next generation of his family -- beautifully expressing the life learnings of a grandfather (and the wisdom of his grandchild!). I wrote to Bob and told him that he's made a great start on his own ethical will -- whether he knew it or not! Thank you Grandbob and Grandbaby Cade for sharing these "Elite Eight" teachable moments of your relationship!

Read Bob Welch's column at:

The Register-Guard, Eugene, Oregon, USA
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Monday, May 01, 2006

"Mapping My Exit"

Last Sunday, I was invited to a local church to speak about ethical wills to a group of people who were taking their "Mapping My Exit" workshop. Started six years ago, the workshop consists of three, 2-hour sessions to help people get started with planning and expressing their final wishes. Speakers come to talk about legal, health care, financial, funeral, and other matters.

The workshop participants receive an excellent workbook that provides, in one place, all the necessary information that a family or personal representative needs to carry out one's wishes at the end-of-life. Just gather important information and fill-in the blanks on forms provided. What a gift of preplanning for the loved ones you leave behind!

In the midst of my talk, I always include a "reflections exercise" to give people a "living" experience of what it's like to do an ethical will. After taking time to reflect on a question, I ask people to share the thoughts that came to their mind with another person. Of course, the room always starts buzzing with the energy of lively conversation (which I'm reluctant to stop when "time is up" because people are enjoying their telling and listening so much!).

At this talk, I noticed a man in the front row who didn't have a partner to dialogue with -- so I sat down across from him and asked about what he had thought about. His response went something like this: "I've been blessed with 63 years of marriage, a great family, and work I enjoyed. God gave me an ability to teach and I've influenced the lives of thousands of people." I asked him how old he was. "87", he said.

"What about your health?," I inquired. "Relatively good," he said. "I lost an eye years ago. Of course, I asked the usual 'why me?' questions. But, looking back, it didn't really affect my life that much. I was able to serve in the military and teach for years. A few years ago though, I had a problem with my 'good' eye and was blind for four days. When I couldn't see anything and lay there wondering if I'd ever see again, poems started coming to me in the midst of the 'blackness'. And, you know, when my sight returned, I wrote those poems down. And I've continued writing poems. I just wrote one today. Now I have over 200 of them", he said, with a smile and twinkle in his eyes. What a wonderful personal legacy to share with future generations of his family!
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