News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

October 3, 2010

MARK BENNETT: Words to live by: Ethical will defines what you stand for

Many parents assume their beliefs and values, life lessons and hopes for the future are obvious to their children.

Someday, those sons and daughters will recite our personal mantras to their kids.

“Your grandpa always used to say (fill in the blank) …”

Unfortunately, the memories of sons and daughters could be imprecise. A dad may have urged his kids to “pay your debts on time,” but decades later the message relayed to his grandchildren could morph into, “Your grandpa always used to say, ‘Take your time paying your debts.’”

Big difference.

What’s worse, the moral guidelines of most people might only be vaguely understood by their loved ones. At best, bits and pieces of their aspirations get passed on to later generations by word of mouth and stray photos.

They need a personal mission statement — an “ethical will.”

Anyone who’s worked in the corporate or public sectors knows the phrase “mission statement.” It sets a standard expectation for employees, customers, shareholders or taxpayers. Likewise, for an individual, an ethical will offers a way to record what you stand for — literally, words we live by, or should live by.

“People look at their young children and say, ‘Gee, I wish I could give them the benefit of knowing what I found out through the school of hard knocks,’” said Jo Kline Cebuhar, an author and attorney from West Des Moines, Iowa.

Cebuhar has mapped out the process for crafting such personal mission statements in her new book “So Grows the Tree: Creating an Ethical Will — The Legacy of Your Beliefs and Values, Life Lessons and Hopes for the Future.” Cebuhar explained that ethical wills aren’t a 21st-century concept. The biblical figure Jacob, near death, essentially delivered an ethical will to his 12 sons and their children.

One of the best examples of an ethical will came from Terre Haute in 1927, Cebuhar said. Local poet Max Ehrmann wrote “Desiderata” as a blueprint for peaceful, contented living. When Terre Haute unveiled a statue and downtown plaza in Ehrmann’s honor in August, Cebuhar celebrated, too, from afar. She commits an entire chapter of “So Grows a Tree” to “Desiderata” and suggests readers use it to organize their philosophies.

Each topic within “Desiderata” prompts fill-in-the-blank questions from Cebuhar to people hoping to formulate their own mission statement, such as, “The most important part of being a family is …” or “My most important ‘life-changing’ event was when …” or “The values I would never compromise are …”

In the end, some folks may decide Ehrmann summarized good living better than they could. That’s fine, Cebuhar said. They should just write, “Dear Loved Ones,” atop “Desiderata” and sign their name below Ehrmann’s at the bottom. At least that gives our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren an idea of what matters to us.

“If somebody said, ‘You’ve got just a few hours left,’ I would grab a copy of ‘Desiderata,’ sign my name to the bottom of it, and say, ‘Do what Max wrote,’” Cebuhar said.

Ethical wills can be as simple as a handwritten letter, Cebuhar said, or as elaborate as a multimedia slideshow, complete with photographs, narration and music. Anybody could, and should, compile one.

At age 59, Cebuhar is part of America’s huge baby boom generation, the demographic group in the most immediate need of sharing personal reflections and dreams with younger folks. Many boomers have seen their plans to leave financial gifts to their children altered by the Great Recession. Though it may sound like 1960s altruism, sharing wisdom with kids is more important, and the economic downturn may focus boomers’ thinking.

“I do think that people are redefining their legacies, as in, ‘My 401k is now a 201k, and that changes what I can leave the kids,’” Cebuhar said. “They change their priorities.”

Those priorities are the foundation of an ethical will. It can be a collection of memories and stories that exemplify a person’s values, along with a few favorite quotations and observations. It paints a lasting picture of someone. You may know your grandfather worked in a foundry, but you may not know why he chose that profession.

“Wouldn’t I Iove to have had, from my grandparents, just a list of their favorite songs or a list of their favorite poems?” Cebuhar said.

Her first exposure to what was, essentially, an ethical will was a letter her Uncle Bill wrote to his brother, Gene, Cebuhar’s father. Her uncle wrote it in 1963, a week before he retired as a prominent railroad executive. In that note to his kid brother, Bill advises him to walk briskly every day and, leaving all worries behind along the way, to keep a truly open mind uncluttered by prejudices, and to be considerate and tolerant. Bill quotes Voltaire and the “Serenity Prayer.”

The letter meant a lot to Cebuhar’s dad. He kept it for the next 20 years, until he died. She’s sure her Uncle Bill would have been surprised to know that short letter he’d written became so special to his brother Gene. “He would’ve said, ‘Are you kidding? I had an hour to kill,’” Cebuhar said, laughing.

An hour.

Her father’s appreciation for those words of wisdom wasn’t a quirk. Seventy-seven percent of baby boomers — and their parents — think that sharing and receiving values and life lessons is more important than giving and getting financial assets and real estate, according to a study by The Allianz Life Insurance Company, quoted in Cebuhar’s book.

But a personal mission statement doesn’t have to be to middle-agers and beyond. The recipients aren’t the only ones who’ll benefit. The writers of ethical wills can define and set a standard to make themselves accountable. “This is an exercise that could be used, very valuably, by teenagers, in terms of, ‘What are my values? And what are the values of my friends?’” Cebuhar said. Ethical wills “started as a really end-of-life, deathbed tradition, but I think it’s really applicable to all parts of life.”

The inspiration could come from a career change, the purchase of a first home, an anniversary, an “empty nest,” a serious illness, the birth of a child or grandchild, a kid’s first day of school, their graduation or marriage. When a son or daughter graduates or marries, they’ll get lots of advice from others as part of the process. Parents’ beliefs, values, lessons and hopes might ease their child’s path.

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    March 12, 2010