Legacy Writing: The Urge to Preserve

Writing legacy letters (spiritual, ethical wills) is a response to the deep human yearning in us to articulate and preserve who we most authentically are and by what values we have lived.
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Writing legacy letters (spiritual, ethical wills) is a response to the deep human yearning in us to articulate and preserve who we most authentically are and by what values we have lived. How is this different from the Lascaux cave painters communicating to the future over 15,000 years ago? How different are we from Emanuel Ringelblum who spent his last months gathering 25,000 documents to preserve life as it was lived in the Warsaw Ghetto? Burying Holocaust history in milk cans echoes back to the Essenes, who preserved their history and values in canisters, too (the Dead Sea Scrolls) some 2,000 years ago.

We Are All Links to the Past and the Future

That doesn't change, whether we're pre-language like the cave-painters, post-printing-press, or even wireless.

It's easy to understand our urge to preserve at joyful occasions in our lives. Life-cycle events like birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, baptisms, bar mitzvahs, confirmations, graduations and religious and secular holidays fill us with gratitude and open our hearts to express our love. We're attuned to deeper thoughts, awe and a sense that we want to leave our imprint and blessings as we experience those times. There's also the bittersweetness of experiencing time passing and the impermanence of our lives.

What seems to make the urge to preserve more intense, more demanding of our attention, is an awareness of our mortality. That may come gradually as is normal in the second half of life, or abruptly, often without warning, when an accident, illness or mortal danger befalls us or others.

We stand today at the beginning of a new year, 2011, as people have faced the future for millennia. How will we, members of sacred human communities, define it, communicate it, remember its past and paint its future?

Deeper than the new year's resolutions that we make so facilely and break so easily, let us seize the opportunity to "begin to begin again," to borrow Marcia Falk's words. Let us commit to responding to the profound yearning within us to communicate and preserve the values that matter most to us.

Let us write our spiritual, ethical wills. Using the simple format of legacy letters, we can celebrate life, link our stories to our history, share life lessons and participate in preserving our culture's values for the future.

Suggestions for Action:

  1. Use the format of a letter (far less threatening than writing a spiritual, ethical will). There is something special, even sacred, about receiving a letter written in a loved one's hand.

  • Time yourself, writing for 15 minutes, no more. Setting a reasonable limit focuses your attention and intention. Legacy writing need not be an overwhelming task.
  • If you choose, you can divide your letter into four components (paragraphs). They include providing the context or history, telling the story or experience, sharing the learning or lesson culled from the experience and offering a blessing to the recipient of the letter.
  • You can always go back to re-work, edit or amend your draft. Most writers find that the discipline of timed writing almost magically results in expression directly from the heart, sending a powerful message to your loved ones.
  • As Marianne Williamson suggested, "we are all mothers of the planet," making legacy writing a privilege and responsibility for all of us, not just parents or grandparents. Legacy letters may be written to a family member, friend, colleague, co-worker or community.
  • Use holidays, life-cycle events, memorable events and life transitions as appropriate "moments" to write your legacy letters.
  • Write "reflections" for no more than a few minutes directly after writing a legacy letter. Reflections, the mental counterpart to your heartfelt letter, are for you. They provide you with a valuable perspective about the experience of writing the letter, an opportunity to document your writing process and learn more about yourself.
  • May this new year be a time of commitment to the sacred urge to preserve -- for yourself today and for those you love tomorrow.

    Rachael Freed has several published works, including "Women's Lives, Women's Legacies: Passing Your Beliefs and Blessings to Future Generations" and "Heartmates: A Guide for the Spouse and Family of the Heart Patient." She is currently working on "Harvesting the Wisdom of Our Lives: An Inter-generational Legacy Guide for Seniors and Their Families." A Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota's Center for Spirituality and Healing, Rachael is a clinical social worker, adult educator and legacy consultant.

    For more information, visit and Follow Rachael on Twitter@LegacyWriting.