Willed Values & the Law

Arts & Letters links to Stacy A. Teicher’s “A Fresh Definition of Inheritance Comes Into Vogue”. Apparently experts (some legal) are now employed in writing “ethical wills” in which one generation wills its values to the next. While these date back to the 1970’s (this was a new concept to me), as Teicher observes, it has “ancient precedents.” What we want to give our children are the nuggets we have mined through painful experience; what we want to give them is a refined version of us. The essay concluded with links to two websites and a do-it-yourself guide from the Jewish Ethical Wills Society.

All emphasize the spiritual nature of such a legacy and, indeed, one author, Barry K. Baines, won an award for one of the “Best Spiritual Books 2002.” While some jargon is that of the courtroom, of apportionment of material goods, all understand that what is being discussed here is not the stuff of pre-nups and property.

Both sites extract money in exchange for an expert’s aid in finding that in communicating those truths in a form later generations recognize and use. At first, I felt critical. But, I admit ours has become a society of “experts” in service; summing up one’s life and what one has learned is likely to be difficult. As an expert at acrylic nails or Christmas lights or even the quite meaningful wedding dinner can help us, why shouldn’t we use someone’s services for this more complex task?

And the “ancient precedents” Ms. Teicher speaks of were “precedents” – that is, these, too, reflected a given structure with specific purposes best fulfilled by defining lives in recognizable stages. Anne Bradstreet’s “Letter to Her Children” achieves its beauty from the power of her prose and the strength of her faith; the structure is pretty much a given. Like hundreds of other women’s spiritual autobiographies, her Puritan narrative follows a pattern no more (nor less) rigid than 14-lines of rhymed iambic pentameter: birth, faith, straying, chastening, returning to the fold (repeated over and over) until a final calm acceptance of faith. With art but little transgressive argument, she makes the purpose (to confess her faith) concrete.

First, she speaks directly to her children as she nears labor to give birth to her eighth child; she opens with a wry admonition – I know my words will have more meaning when I’m gone. Then she moves into a useful, lovely metaphor – as I labored (“travailed”) to give physical birth to each, I now labor to deliver you spiritually. A modern reader, more immersed in the real world and having a sense of our distance from and desire to understand Bradstreet’s historical moment may long for her quick and analytic mind’s observations. She was an artist arising in the wilderness, a pioneer in that early 1630 settlement, the daughter and wife of governors; her life must have been fascinating, hard. But that is not what she wants to “will” her children – not the self as artist, as pioneer, as wife, even as mother. This is not the truth of a spiritual biographer. She dismisses the importance of that world (and its temptations) in two strong, beautiful lines of prose:

After a short time I changed my condition and was married, and came into this country, where I found a new world and new manners, at which my heart rose. But after I was convinced it was the way of God, I submitted to it and joined to the church at Boston.

We see doubts and resolution: “That there is a God, I see. If ever this God hath revealed himself, it must be in His word, and this must it be or none.” This is the “nugget” – she has found the purpose of her journey. She concludes with the elegance of the plain style, “I know whom I have trusted, and whom I have believed, and that He is able to keep that I have committed to his charge.”

And, if a legal pattern helps modern man find meaning in the pattern of his life, is that so different from the way ministers helped parishioners find evidence of God’s working in their lives, suggesting in sermon after sermon this structure that Anne Bradstreet uses so beautifully and believes so thoroughly?

American introspection was defined, nurtured, highly valued by the Puritans, so I’ve come back to them (don’t we always – or is it just, as my children say, me?). But a little more than a century later, we see another autobiography that is also most successful when it aims at the next generation. In a real sense, Benjamin Franklin, like Bradstreet, polishes off an artistic “values will.” He begins by addressing his son and the first sections, before their awful and never resolved estrangement took place, are the strongest. When he loses that sense of his son as audience he loses a good deal of the wit. Early on, for instance, he acknowledges his avuncular and garrulous style might be trying, but a book (which, even acknowledging the respect due age, may be shut) has its advantages. He gives his son family values that include a warm and textured tribute to his own father, to the values (he sees summed up in the word “franklin”) of the sturdy middle class. They work for no one and no one works for them, he implies.

He also tells us very early the purpose of his narrative, the truth he wants to give his son. And that truth is very much of this world:

Having emerg’d from the Poverty and Obscurity in Reputation in the World, and having gone so far thro’ Life with a considerable Share of Felicity, the conducting Means I made use of, which, with the Blessing of God, so well succeeded, my Posterity may like to know, as they may find some of them suitable to their own Situations, and therefore fit to be imitated. That Felicity, when I reflected on it, has induc’d m sometimes to say, that it were it offer’d to my Choice, I should have no Objection to a Repetition of the same Life from its Beginning, only asking the Advantage Authors have in a second Edition to correct some Faults of the First.

Of course, his argument always concerns right living in this world and if he eventually is lead to acknowledge the importance of the moral tradition, of, indeed, “revelation,” he values it less for its truth than its “usefulness” (which he finds in the tradition whose truth he doubts). Franklin doesn’t, and we certainly cannot if we take him seriously, see in his narrative a pattern that reinforces Bradstreet’s vision. To him, it was life in this world, within the community, that was important and it was his ability to be “useful” to others that he valued.

Frederick Douglass describes his long and painful initiatory path to freedom; this freedom is a humanist one. He becomes intensely (even painfully) conscious, breaking through the unconsciousness with which his owners would prefer him to remain, through the act of reading, of writing, of understanding his own relation to the history of men. It is not that reading Sheridan’s tracts on Catholic emancipation taught him something he hadn’t known with his gut; it helped him understand with his head and what he understood was himself:

“They were choice documents to me. Read the over and over again with unabated interest. They gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind, and died away for want of utterance.”

His sees himself as responsible, as choosing to make himself a “man” – a conscious, mature person. He also sees Providence at work, most clearly in his description of his transfer to the household of the family in Baltimore. Life in the city, the joy of reading and writing: all these steps made him the man he became, the inner assertion echoed in the external one, as he triumphs over Covey in physical battle and becomes a man again.

Douglass’s purpose, like that of Thoreau, a contemporary, is to talk to a broader audience and to make a more general argument. If Thoreau’s assumptions are those of the romantic and Frederick Douglass of the neoclassicist, both find purpose in their lives, and deliver them in the lessons and structure of their narratives.

These writers also help us understand how we understand ourselves. But I think looking at the four of them and beginning with the values each assumes as well as argues, we can make some observations. One is that any structure must be flexible, varied, open. For some of us, meaning is derived from the spiritual, for others from the communal; from some it is the rich cultural tradition in which we swim, for others it is the simple, ascetic life in which we attempt to regain the immediacy and innocence of our youth. Probably most of us find all four of these quite attractive, even seductive. But for each, one of these or perhaps some other matrix of values is closer to the one by which we judge the worth of our own lives, closer to the interpretation of our experiences we want to pass on to our children.

And then we have the expert in such assessments. While a will that passes on to our children our values seems a pretty difficult but probably commendable task, my children scoffed, complaining that if the parents haven’t successfully defined their values by that point they may as well give up. But, then, the need is probably more the parents than the child’s. And I found the sermon at my father’s funeral useful – it seemed to make firm what was always, in all those anecdotes we remember, a bit slippery. It was his uniqueness that I wanted captured. If we accept the structure, the nugget, from someone else, from someone who sees the world, sees life differently than we do. And some, of course, see but one purpose, see but one possible structure to the narrative. These may be ideological, religious, political–whatever they are, these structures are less likely to be useful to many of us.

A second problem arises. The legalese (even surrounded as it is by allusions to the spiritual) may be a signal of a problem in our increasingly secularized society. We seem too often to expect the legal to do the work of the spiritual, man’s law to subsume God’s law, try to enact it in the worldly sphere.

Man’s law embraces certain values; these are generally good ones. But our lives prioritize and distinguish between those values and, indeed, many of us place other laws above those of the courthouse (no matter how highly we prize those). A legal formula is likely to devalue that individualism, the very uniqueness we assume such wills are designed to capture.

And thinking about those wills may move us onto a tangent, but one that also involves our confusion about what laws can do and what they can’t. And this is a grave potential problem: do we sometimes expect the legal to establish a justice that just can’t be wrought on this earth? For instance, death happens – it happens to the young and innocent as well as the old and guilty. It happens. And I speak as someone who has never sustained such great losses—the loss of a child, the loss of a spouse; so I’m sure this is skating on surfaces. And of course, such losses aren’t fair. All of us should get our lifetimes on this earth, we feel. But no amount of litigation is going to make that just. We can litigate as if it will. But that doesn’t mean, in the end, the dead child gets a full life. If we argue, if we litigate, if we campaign for changes with sufficient vigor we may hope to ensure that those deaths are not in vain – the world has become a little more just because of our actions. But, in the end, we cannot control the world, we cannot make it harmonize with our idea of the just. And I suspect that a second reason as well, equally understandable, for our passionate advocacy is we forget for a moment the personal.

Our early leaders recognized, for instance, that man cannot in the end achieve a perfectly just world even though he can strive to build a just (as much as man, in his fallibility, can build) court. And they trusted Providence – from the least to the most religious of those founders. They had a good deal more faith than most of us (and not always just the secular of us) have in the justness of the big picture. All four of these great American autobiographies are inspired by a sense that there is a larger order in which this narrative plays a part). Only an Olympian (non-human) eye can see that pattern and only an unseen hand can act upon Bradstreet or Franklin to set that pattern in motion.

And this, of course, returns us obliquely to Mr. Hiteshaw’s post on “hate crimes.” He does a beautiful job of pointing to the inevitable injustice of such laws, the inevitable misuse. He speaks as Franklin would of the “usefulness” of such laws to help all of us lead the “good life.” But it seems to me implicit in our hesitation at such laws is also a feeling that they are inherently wrong. I don’t want to put words in his mouth, so I will say what bothers me: We are not gods; we can not read minds; nor can we reward others for what we must only feel but not know is their intrinsic goodness nor punish them for the evil of their thoughts, their feelilngs. For even if all the inevitable (and they are inevitable) consequences – Balkanization, victimization, tyranny of the minority – did not happen, the principle would still be that a secular court can not take on the role of a God and probe the mind and motives of the men before it. Even as he dismisses the truth of “revelation,” Franklin would observe the opaque and “errata” prone nature of man. And his pragmatism no less than Bradstreet’s spirituality would doubt that such laws could really “see” into our souls. To presume to do so is arrogant, to gather this power into the government is to take on Stalin’s role of the “engineer of human souls” (later used by Joseph Svorecky in his novel of literature and freedom).

Ironically, as we attempt to secularize our civic life, we’ve lost an important distinction. Far more important than whether someone wears a cross or a Star of David or chooses to wear a headscarf, far more important than whether the ten commandments are or are not in a courthouse is the distinction between God’s law and secular law, between man’s thoughts and his acts that affect others. The former is between our God and ourselves, the religious might say. The secularist might argue, well, our motives are ones we need through introspection to understand and control, but mine are my business. I can’t imagine that either, if they actually thought about it, would think that our courts should enter into that private space and make judgments. When we think of the breadth with which modern courts define privacy rights, surely we would find a secure right to our thoughts. Such laws invade our privacy with, shall we say, a vengeance. Certainly with arrogance.

1 thought on “Willed Values & the Law”

  1. Funny you should bring this just now. I’m going thru genealogy stuff, and have this book containing the wills of my great-great-great-great-grandfather and mother, died in 1852 and 1854 respectively. Both of them included spiritual/values type words for their surviving children.

    From William West:
    . . .Let nothing, at any time, rest on your minds calculated to in any way impair the love and affection which up to this time has always subsisted between you.
    May the blessing of God rest upon you all. Be kind to your mother,

    From Dorothy Rennison West:

    . . .Seek the truth, use your own judgment and follow the way that you think is best, regardless of what I have found the best way.

    Last words for beloved children. It’s rather sad and sweet.

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