Writing an “ethical will” is a lovely, sacred Jewish tradition. It’s a way to reflect on and impart our most cherished values to loved ones. Rabbi Elana Zaiman has been helping elders to write these emotional, sometimes difficult, letters for years. In The Forever Letter: Writing What We Believe for Those We Love, Zaiman uses this spiritual practice as a foundation for showing readers of all ages how to write meaningful letters.
In this age of emoji communication why bother hand-writing a full-blown letter? According to Zaiman: “When we write letters to the people we love, we give them a tangible gift that they can embrace for life: a gift they can touch and hold; a gift that reminds them of our love for them and our appreciation of the; a gift that becomes a permanent brick in the structure of our relationship and strengthens our bond.”
Zaiman is a wonderful storyteller, which is evident in this book peppered with personal stories about meaningful letters she has received, stories from people in her workshops, and stories about letter-writing from literature and philosophy. This highly engaging book provides tips for writing not just a letter, but a parable that conveys the essence of what has given your life meaning.
Here’s more from Zaiman about how to write a Forever Letter:
Source: Used with permission: Llewellyn Publications
Psychology Today: To whom do I write?
Zaiman: To your child or grandchild. Your parent or grandparent. Your teacher, student, brother, sister, spouse, partner or friend. You can write a Forever Letter to anyone in your life who matters to you.
PT: How many Forever Letters should I write?
Zaiman: Start with one. As Lao Tzu said, “A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” See how it goes. Each letter you write will be different, because each relationship is different. Some Forever Letters will be more difficult to write, others easier. Either way, know this: You will learn a lot about yourself and about your relationship with the person you’re writing to through the writing process.
PT: What if I’m blocked?
Zaiman: Perhaps you’re thinking, “I’m not a writer.” The good news: You don’t have to be a writer to write a Forever Letter. You have only to be yourself. It’s your voice, your words, your phrasing, your humor, your kindness, your essence, your way of being in the world that the person you’re writing to wants to hear.
Or, maybe you’re thinking, “I’m not good enough” (self-disclosure—I know this one). If self-doubt creeps in, if you think to yourself things like: I’ve not always lived up to my expectations of myself, I’ve not always lived the values I consider important, I’ve not always shown up in the world or in my relationships in the way I hope, so who am I to write a Forever Letter, don’t let these thoughts keep you from writing.
Here’s what I say: Okay, so you’re not perfect. Guess what? You’re in great company. None of us is perfect. We all have pieces within us we want to improve or even remove. So, when we write, we write from a place of humility, honesty, and truth. We say things like, “As I write, I realize I have fallen short of who I really want to be. Hopefully you will do better than I am doing.” Or, “I realize now that for much of my early life, I was living life as the person my parents wanted me to be, not as the person I wanted to be, and therefore I was not able to be as present to you as I would have liked, because I wasn’t even sure how to be present to myself.”
PT: Where do I begin?
Zaiman: First, start with the intention to communicate. Second, set aside some time. I suggest two hours as a start. Third, and this may sound overly simplistic, but it works: Write or type the word, “Dear” on the page. Then add the name of the person you’re writing to. Fourth, begin to write. Don’t edit. That will come later. Fifth, write from your most authentic place. Write to share your values, wisdom, appreciation and love, to ask for forgiveness and to forgive, to disclose the struggle in your soul or to reach out to someone whose soul is in pain. Write to express your belief in or your admiration for, to acknowledge and to uplift.
Writing a Forever Letter takes time, fortitude, and emotional present-ness. But it’s worth it. If you put time and commitment into writing this letter, you can come to better know yourself and connect more deeply with the person(s) you’re writing to.