Be Here Then

why and how to write & create an ethical will, hospice card, or other legacy

The Rule of No — Part I

Why do we need such a rule?  We are all mostly kind, understanding people, right?  Well . . . sure, most of the time!

In a nutshell, this Rule of No means “do no harm.”  Another way to think of it is “if in doubt, leave it out.”  Many of us probably understand this, and would never deliberately throw a “verbal hand grenade.”  Many of us would never want to write something that we knew would cause hurt, or damage relationships, or create rifts in the family.  Still, it happens, because we are all human, and we don’t always reflect on how we express things.

Before we get to an example, let’s consider what an ethical will is not:

It is not a forum for “getting it off (your) chest” or “having the last word.”  These phrases suggest an air of negativity, if not outright hostility.  Putting such words and intentions into an ethical will is contrary to the fundamental spirit of the will.

If you plan the ethical will or legacy letter sharing to occur after your death, the potential for damage is higher.  Anything hostile or provocative you say then may cause lasting hurt — as your passing obviously disallows any further opportunity for others to make peace with you.  Such words wound, and the ripple effect influences other relationships.  Families can fracture over such things.  Would this be your best legacy?

Consider now the following example, keeping in mind that our ethical will or legacy letter is an important way others will remember us:

Let’s say we intend an apology in our letter for our contribution to a particular, painful event.  We could simply say something like:

“For my part in the difficulty between us last Christmas, I’d like to apologize to you.”

Yet maybe, instead, it comes out like this:

“At last year’s unhappy family Christmas dinner, I wish I could have remained calm and not added fuel to the fire when you got belligerent and started that fight with me and my wife.  I apologize for contributing to the tension.”

What is the difference between those two versions?  Look at them, think about them, and see what you think.  (Yes, do this now, before you read on!)

Now imagine, just for this moment, that you were the one at a family gathering who started a fight that turned nasty.  And right or wrong, now you feel badly about it, but you’re too proud or too embarrassed to say anything, or you don’t know how to apologize.  Which of these two versions would you rather read, from the person you fought with?  Does one seem more, or less, peace-making than the other?  Why?

Both versions reference the event or incident of memory (what we call “flagging”).  Both acknowledge the writer’s participation (“difficulty between us” and “for contributing”).  Great start, taking some responsibility.  Both go on to offer an apology.  Okay, so far so good.

Before we turn to the differences between the two versions, in Part II, think of this:  Would you change the first version?  If so, how, and why?  Do you think your changes would feel kinder, or neutral, or a bit harsher?

Tomorrow:  The Rule of No — Part II


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