Legacy Writing: A Spiritual Practice

A young woman completing her theology studies recently asked me to explain why I call legacy writing ‘spiritual’. I was speechless! How to put words to something I believe deeply: that writing legacy letters is a spiritual act.

Writing about spirituality is difficult because spirit is ineffable. We can’t ‘see’ spirit, nor define, nor possess it. We can only communicate about the experience of it with our limited senses, intellect, and language. (Consider our awe witnessing the birth of a baby or the thrill of viewing a magnificent sunrise.)

When I took on the task of translating the ancient tradition of the ethical will, to make it relevant to contemporary life, I intuitively named it the ‘spiritual-ethical will’ to highlight and make explicit the spiritual nature of legacy writing, though today I call this writing simply ‘legacy letters’.

Legacy goes back to Genesis, Chapter 49. The dying Jacob blessed his sons, and asked them to return his bones from Egypt to the family burial plot where his ancestors, Sarah and Abraham, were buried. 1500 years later, rabbis extracted the two ideas, (blessing the next generation with the values of their culture, and expressing death and dying wishes) creating the template for the ancient ethical will. Practiced through the centuries, fathers wrote letters to their sons, passing forward moral-ethical traditions from generation to generation.

Contemporary legacy letters as the ancient, primarily bless the generations of the future and make explicit our desires about our dying and death. However today’s legacy letters can include a wider range of subjects:

Legacy letters preserve and communicate the wisdom, stories and legacies from our ancestors for those who will come after us. When we write this kind of letter we experience ourselves as a living link binding the past to the future. It is a sacred responsibility for elders to pass the values of our culture and civilization forward.

Another modern subject is a letter of regret, an apology for something we’ve done that hurt another. This is healing for writers as they take responsibility for their actions. It may also affect the family, opening communication where there’s been resentful silence, strengthening relationships when family members have been estranged, beginning the powerful and spiritual process of forgiveness. A legacy letter of apology also teaches the young by example that elders make and admit mistakes, can be vulnerable, and make a sincere effort to right wrongs.

Celebrating life’s special moments are subjects for legacy letters too. Imagine how such letters will be treasured as precious gifts for many years by those who receive them: marking a wedding, a confirmation, a new baby, a graduation, a first job, and holidays when we express our gratitude.

Writing an ethical will is a gift not only to family and loved ones, but can be healing for the writers. How, you ask? Often legacy writers experience a release from anxiety, an acceptance of who we are, an understanding of our life purpose, an expression of gratitude for life’s blessings.

Universal and unconscious human needs are addressed as we write. What are these needs? There are six: belonging, being known, being remembered, being blessed and blessing others, making a positive difference with our lives, and celebrating Life.

Though I currently work with all faiths and ages, and both genders, I began doing legacy work holding this spiritual question: How could I respect this ancient patriarchal tradition and provide a means for modern women to find their voices to express their contemporary values?

I crafted a program forming ‘women’s legacy circles,’ so we could write ‘in community’. The rules were simple: this was neither a writing group so we wouldn’t critique each other’s writing, nor was it a therapy group so we wouldn’t analyze each other’s writing. Instead, we would keep a sacred circle in which women would be safe to share their writing if they chose, and the circle would gift the writer by listening as deeply as we were able. It was miraculous.

Whether I was working with “lifers” in a women’s prison, women in 12-step programs, in philanthropic foundations, or in faith-based organizations, being deeply heard allowed women to explore, reflect, and write to their loved ones about the things that really mattered to them. Of course legacy writing can be done in isolation, but writing–in–community multiplies the blessings. The circle nurtures each individual’s need to be heard and known, to belong and be respected in a larger world.

Today I work with both genders, of all ages, primarily individuals in transition, and my 2013 book, Your Legacy Matters, addresses younger and older writers, all of whom appreciate that we never know when our days may be over.

Legacy writing asks of us too. It requires us to accept ‘the idea’ of our mortality. If we weren’t mortal, there’d be no need to write legacy letters preserving history, stories, wisdom and love for those ‘who’ll come after us.’ Unless we’re diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, we keep death at a distance, even as we age. Making the decision to explore the important events and values of our lives to pass that wisdom to future generations is a spiritual act. We’re confronting something beyond everyday thoughts, feelings and actions, the world of easily deleted tweets and emails. We’re entering the realm of ‘meaning’.

A legacy letter that accompanies the advance directive (living will) acknowledges the reality of death. In such a letter we can express our wants and needs at end-of-life, ‘why’ we’ve chosen what we’ve chosen, to personalize the objective ‘do and don’t’ of the legal document.

Once the subject is introduced we can have real conversations with our families and loved ones about the reality of aging. We can begin to uncover and share our fears and desires, our concerns and our doubts with each other. And we leave a legacy to younger generations illustrating a new way to relate to death and dying.

The rewards of writing this letter for the writer are many: a trust that what we hope for in dying will be honored by loved ones; that we are not just elders, parents or grandparents, but sacred human beings with unique identities who want to be known in our strengths and vulnerabilities by those we love and who love us.

Beyond the modern legacy letter accompanying our advance health directive is the legacy letter that breaks our culture’s last taboo, writing about money.

These legacy letters can accompany our wills (legal documents distributing our material wealth), and because the ethical will is not a legal document, it can be as personal, explanatory, and lengthy as each author wishes. These legacy letters clarify thoughts, feelings, and values that motivate the writers’ decisions about leaving material gifts. As we define and communicate deeply held philanthropic values and our decisions about gifting our inheritors, we articulate our uniqueness and express who we really are.

This legacy letter also models a new paradigm about money. Communication breaks down the isolation surrounding money, the silence that causes misunderstanding, difficult feelings, and complications in family relationships.

Younger generations will also receive an unexpected legacy from us – establishment of a ‘new normal’: talking and writing about money. Those who’ve written these legacy letters to accompany their wills report an experience of relief, satisfaction, even peace – putting material matters to rights – as do legacy writers who have the courage to write about the reality of their deaths, even if death may be years, even decades in the future.

We’ve come full circle, asking about the spiritual nature of contemporary legacy writing. Although inspired from Bible text, we write today about our modern concerns, learnings, stories, values, and love, not so different from Jacob of old.

In our complex, contemporary world, we too often avoid and distract ourselves from the reality of meaning, of our morality, our mortality, of celebrating Life. We can choose to write legacy letters to acknowledge our humanity: to express our love of life and to bless future generations. What could be more spiritual than that? I think nothing!

May we all be blessed with the love and courage to write to the future. May our legacy letters meet our needs and strengthen our families, our loved ones, and future generations.

© 2016 Rachael Freed
Founder, Life Legacies   

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