Testosterone and sadness filled the room. It was a sacred goodbye. Twelve sons gathered at Jacob’s death bed, according to the Bible. They were listening to their father’s moral directives, blessings and burial instructions. The daughter, Dinah, was not invited.
This 3,500-year-old patriarchal tradition continued in medieval times when the father would write an ethical will to his sons, who opened the letter after the father’s death. Examples of these heart-felt letters exist from as early as 1050, originating from such diverse places as Spain, China and Babylonia.
Men wrote most such ethical wills, but there were a few authored by women during medieval times, such as Gluckel of Hameln in 1690. Since women were not allowed to own property, an ethical will could be one way of passing on “moral assets.”
Today, both genders are welcome to sit at this ancient table and write an updated version of the ethical will called a legacy letter.
A legacy letter translates your personal and family stories and values into life lessons and wisdom that can inform and transform the younger and future generations.
Your letter can also express your hopes, blessings, explanations, forgiveness and gratitude. It can provide a powerful healing and comforting effect on the people you care about through the simple act of sharing your stories through words.
The process can have physical, emotional and spiritual benefits both for you as the writer and for your letter’s recipient(s).
As our modern society increasingly places more emphasis on material things, we can lose sight of what we think is important in our lives. Wealth is more than money and possessions. In fact, what you learn in life may be more valuable than what you earn.
Passing on your life lessons and values, not just your valuables, is important in our consumption-oriented culture. By putting pen to paper about these intangible assets you preserve who you are and what matters most to you. It is a way to be remembered, to be understood and to make a real difference to the younger generation.
A legacy letter also documents your connection to your family roots providing an important link between your ancestors, you and your descendants. In particular, a legacy letter can give women an opportunity to share stories with their children and grandchildren about inspirational female relatives who may serve as role models.
It is a unique time in history. We are living longer than any other generation, especially women. Therefore, we have more years of experience to share.
Inspired by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, author of “From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older,” I like to think I am sage-ing, not just age-ing. In fact, there is a sage in all of us. Legacy letter writing can help unearth and preserve this wisdom, especially for women who may not have had as much opportunity as they would have liked to express their wisdom.
The younger generation needs our insights and wisdom now perhaps more than at any time in history. It sometimes seems there is an entire cohort obsessed with technology and multi-tasking and increasingly disconnected from those closest to them. Families are scattered and lead hectic lives. There doesn’t seem to be enough time to share family stories.
And when families do get together, young people, and perhaps all of us to a certain extent, are often distracted by technology (this tendency started before the pandemic, but has certainly increased now). Have you ever found yourself annoyed when younger relatives incessantly check their smart phones, covertly cradled in their laps under the table? Perhaps you too are guilty of being more interested in posting photos of family gatherings than truly engaging with your family.
Young people are smart, but perhaps, common sense is not as common. I believe we have a generational obligation to pass on our family stories and life lessons. In doing so, perhaps we can help loved ones avoid some of life’s common scrapes and bruises we faced.
New York Times journalist Maureen Dowd said: “Planning the future without knowing the past is like planting cut flowers.” Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush conducted research supporting this viewpoint offering proof that providing more information about family heritage between generations can have important, positive results.
The researchers showed that the more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned (Feiler, 2013).
In essence, a legacy letter becomes a touchstone of the past, and an anchor for the future for them and you. Share your voice for you, for them and for the generations to follow.
What do you think of the idea of writing a legacy letter? What key ideas would you include if you decided to write one? Please join the conversation.