Healthy Aging: Sharing dreams with the future

    I’m redrafting my “ethical will.”

    These are fierce and challenging times, and I need to strengthen the language that documents my values and beliefs. If you’re not familiar with the process, the idea is to identify and catalog what you believe to be the most important principles in your life and lay them out for future generations to consider.

    As my daughter said when she originally heard what I was doing, “That’s huge, mother.”

    And it is. It’s perhaps one of the more challenging writing assignments I’ve ever accepted.

    Traditionally the term “legacy” refers to something tangible handed down from an ancestor and/or the disposition of things such as money and property. For example, who gets grandma’s yellow pie plate? This is a little different.

    I’ve looked at countless illustrations and they are usually quite powerful. If you are inclined to follow through on this, there are numerous websites to reference, such as

    Sometimes ethical wills or “legacy letters” examine individual and family strengths; others retell dreams, realized and unrealized. They are self-revealing and poignant and often include religious commitments or references to spirituality, but not always.

    I’ve been fortunate that my family history has been free of significant relationship challenges. But many of the examples I’ve reviewed involve circumstances where that was not the case and forgiveness was needed. I think ethical wills have the potential to offer a type of intergenerational cleansing and pose a climate for ongoing healing. No scientific evidence for that; it just makes sense.

    From my own experience, once the process is launched, it’s a struggle. At least, it was for me. And maybe it needs to be. It’s also a little contagious — my husband was enchanted by the concept and he doesn’t “enchant” easily.

    The process of creating an ethical will is not typically included in end-of-life planning — but maybe it should be. I launched this project several years ago and then put it away for later consideration. I am almost a decade older and ready to revisit my original contemplations — consider some edits perhaps. In doing so, I keep returning to the philosophy in the “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 politicians running for office. Can you imagine if we were all “impeccable” with our words? Now that’s huge.

    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. We are reminded, “the first three agreements only work if you do your best.”

    Maybe the idea of developing an ethical will speaks to you, maybe it doesn’t. Despite some personal angst in developing mine, I like the concept. It’s already clear to me I’m unearthing more self-understanding, learning more about who I am. And in the end, getting better at being that person.

    Sharon Johnson is an associate professor emeritus, Oregon State University, and the author of “How Gray in My Valley: Enlightened Observations About Being Old.” Reach her at

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