Ghosts to Ancestors

“Work to turn the ghosts that haunt you into the ancestors that accompany you.” Bruce Springsteen

I was inspired to write this after midnight from our hotel room in New York City after my wife and I enjoyed Springsteen on Broadway, an amazing show by The Boss himself covering his life and music. The quote above is not from the performance; rather it’s from his autobiographical book, Born to Run, which serves as the material on which the production is based.

Attending college and law school throughout Springsteen’s heyday in the 1980s, his music was an important part of my youth. From “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out”, my fraternity’s theme song, to “My Hometown,” covering race relations and economic hardship, and “Born to Run,” an anthem of restless youth, I identified with his lyrics and message. This not to mention the rollicking good times my friends and I experienced at his energetic, pulsating, three-hours-plus concerts.

Springsteen is now 68 years old, ancient by rock and roll standards. It was clearly evident the importance he placed on telling his personal story, and the desire he has to show the depth of his music and lyrics beyond Top 40 fodder. The production features Bruce on acoustic guitar and piano, rearranging his hits to sound more like Bob Dylan or Arlo Guthrie than what you might remember emanating from your stereo speakers so long ago.

In the book and during the show he speaks of the troubled relationship he had with his alcoholic, bi-polar father. When Bruce was only 19 years old, his father moved his mother and youngest sister across the country from their longtime home in Freehold, New Jersey to San Mateo, California. His parents essentially abandoned him. It would be years before his fame and fortune. His 17-year-old pregnant sister was also left behind to fend for herself.

He covers the painful feelings over his mother’s ambivalence about how the move would tear the family apart. Knowing this, she went along out of devotion to her husband. Yet, as the book progresses through his life’s journey, Springsteen reveals how he came to terms with his family’s good and bad, and how grateful he was for his life experience. Had events not unfolded as they did, he may not have become the reverential figure of today.

I feel much the same way about my upbringing. I was born to a 24-year-old father and a 22-year-old mother, both of whom then lacked the maturity and economic wherewithal to support a son, and then, nearly three years later, a daughter. Like Springsteen’s family, my parents, running from their demons, moved from Indianapolis to Clearwater when my sister and I were teens. Unlike Springsteen’s family, however, we all moved. My parents seemed to lurch from one tragedy to the next, not learning from their youthful mistakes. Despite this, they remained devoted to one another, their marriage lasting more than 54 years until my mother’s death two years ago.

So strong was my parents’ devotion to one another, and so difficult was their struggle to make ends meet, that my sister and I became tertiary figures to the play that became our life. Both of us suffered lasting emotional scars. But, just as Springsteen states, without those scars I wouldn’t have become the man that I am.

I wanted a different upbringing for my three daughters, and my sister and her husband successfully raised a son and daughter as well. We’ve learned valuable lessons from our parents’ shortcomings. I wasn’t perfect raising my family, as I’ve made my share of mistakes. They were mostly different mistakes, although I’ll admit to repeating some.

“A man learns fatherhood through his father’s actions,” Springsteen said during the performance.

Like Bruce, I realize that if I don’t turn the ghosts that haunt me into ancestors that accompany me, I’ll just transfer my baggage to the next generation. “I decided between my father and me that the sum of our troubles would not be the summation of our lives together…There are irretrievable lives and unredeemable sins, but the chance to rise above is one I wish for yours and mine,” he writes.

Near the end of the show, Springsteen speaks glowingly of his now deceased father. Before launching into “Dancing in the Dark,” he describes his 93-year-old mother, who is “seven years into Alzheimer’s.” He uses the song to tell us about his mother’s love for dance and her positive influence on his life.

Anyone who’s both suffered through childhood trauma and then later raised a family of one’s own can identify with the powerful emotions conveyed during this show’s two and a half hours. I’m just happy that I had the opportunity to reflect on words of wisdom uttered by one of my boyhood heroes, who, as it turns out, is so much more than a rock and roll legend.

 © 2018 Craig R. Hersch. Originally published in the Sanibel Island Sun.

Resume Virtues v Eulogy Virtues

A few years ago, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote about two different sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?

As an estate planning attorney, the meaning of eulogy virtues appeals to me. Prior to reading Brooks’ column on the subject, it never occurred to me how our society has tipped the scales so far over to what he calls résumé virtues.

What does Brooks refer to when he writes about eulogy virtues? We’ve all run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical, and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.

Whenever I meet such a person it brightens my whole day. I’ll even brag that my middle daughter possesses such characteristics. But I confess I often have a melancholy thought: It occurs to me that I’ve achieved a decent level of career success, but I have not achieved that. I have not achieved that generosity of spirit, or that depth of character, at least to the degree that I hope for.

We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.

But if you live for external achievement, years pass and the deepest parts of you go unexplored and unstructured. You lack a moral vocabulary. It is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You figure as long as you are not obviously hurting anybody, and people seem to like you, you must be O.K. But you live with an unconscious boredom, separated from the deepest meaning of life and the highest moral joys.

Gradually, a humiliating gap opens between your actual self and your desired self, between you and those incandescent souls you sometimes meet. This transcends one individual and speaks to our society. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes that society needs more than the free market and the liberal democratic state. He says that it needs us to accept moral responsibility for our own lives and for the common good. The truths of what Brooks and Sacks write about is that the strains of the résumé virtues show up in populism, identity politics, the culture of victimhood, and the rise of both the far left and far right — the politics of anger.

I write this column during the Jewish High Holy Day season, the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This year it began on September 9th and lasts until September 19th. Since I am of the Jewish faith, this is the time that I reflect on what I can do to become a better person, and to lead a better life. This doesn’t necessarily mean for myself, but how I can do more for others.

The High Holy Day service prayers tend to summon us to dedicate ourselves individually and collectively to justice, compassion, the sanctity of life and the dignity of the individual. God does not ask us to be perfect. Rather, he asks us to try our best to love Him, our neighbor and the stranger. When we fail, as we all do one way or another, He asks us to acknowledge our failures and try again.

So, this is what I will pledge to do, and hope that I build more of my eulogy virtues. Just before Rosh Hashanah Patti and I were in New York visiting with our eldest daughter and her boyfriend. It is comforting to me that our daughter values her relationship as much as we value ours with her. It makes me feel that we’ve done a few things right.

Now that Patti and I are empty nesters I’m sure we’ll have a greater opportunity to build our eulogy virtues. You may have read my column on the difficulty I’m having transitioning to this new stage of my life. It’s fortuitous that the High Holy Days follows on the heels of this change, and that I have the opportunity to reflect on my hopes and wishes for the coming seasons.

Whether or not you’re of my faith, I wish you and yours a healthy and happy upcoming season, and that collectively our nation renews our values of inclusion, hope and justice for all of our citizens. Whenever each and every one of us commits a small act of kindness, it matters. If enough of us begin to think this way, I believe it will make a real difference.

© 2018 Craig R. Hersch. Originally published in the Sanibel Island Sun.


The next time that you feel depressed, angry, envious, unhappy, or are simply having a bad day, try a little experiment by forcing yourself to take stock in those things in life for which you are grateful. You’ll find that if you are in a true state of gratitude, you can’t experience negative emotions at the same time.

This begs the question – what is true gratitude?  A true state of gratitude is proactive. Many confuse reactive gratitude with proactive gratitude.

Reactive gratitude is passive. It occurs when someone does something good for you. It is therefore passive in the sense that you are not the one acting to create the feeling. You respond in a gracious or polite way. You may say “thank you” or write a note to show your appreciation.

I’ve heard people tell me that they have nothing to be grateful for. They may feel this way because recently no one has done anything noteworthy for them.  “My kids didn’t send me so much as a birthday card,” or “my boss didn’t recognize my achievement at work,” all demonstrate a feeling that the speaker considers gratitude to be something that the world is supposed to create for him or her.

Those people who wait for reactive gratitude continually feel that they exist on the short end of life. While it would be nice if we all received kudos, compliments and favors, the world doesn’t tend to work that way.

Proactive gratitude, on the other hand, is a feeling that we create for ourselves. We originate the feeling within our own mind. This happens when we appreciate the value of something. So gratitude and appreciation are intertwined. The word “appreciate” has several meanings in the dictionary. The first meaning is to have increased value. We are all familiar with how investments in stocks appreciate, or that real estate can appreciate in value.

When you feel an appreciation for someone, you feel that they have an increase in value to you.  You feel gratitude that this person is a part of your life. It takes no action on their part, the feeling of appreciation starts from within your own mind.

The funny thing about feeling appreciation for someone is that not only do you increase that person’s significance and value in your own mind, but by expressing your appreciation and gratitude to that person, you are also likely to increase the value that they feel about themselves and that they feel about you. So this proactive gratitude has a multiplier effect.

A second definition for appreciate is to fully understand.  You’ve probably said to someone in the past that you “appreciate her situation.”  This acknowledges that you have listened to her and feel that you fully understand whatever it is that she speaks of.  Proactive gratitude may therefore involve fully understanding a situation and being grateful for it. This can include setbacks.  Instead of allowing a problem to destroy your day, you could be grateful that it is an experience that you may learn from and improve upon.

Consider, for example, a problem with a co-worker.  Your mind might focus on all of the things that he does to thwart your progress or otherwise annoy you. Armed with all of these destructive emotions, you decide to meet with this co-worker to hash out your differences.

If you do so without first establishing your own mindset of gratitude, you probably won’t find much success. You’ve dug a deep hole from which it will be difficult for either party to escape.

Rather, try this exercise: Start by writing down five things that you appreciate about your co-worker. The appreciation exercise may include things that you know about him – that you fully understand what he may be going through at this moment – that may explain the behavior that leads to the problems. This might be difficult to accomplish at first, since you may be initially filled with negative emotions.

But if you can separate out the person’s good qualities from the behaviors that you find toxic, then you’re on the right path. By de-personalizing the issues, you are making them about the behavior and not about the person. By transforming your thinking, you are much more likely to find success.

Having a mindset that includes proactive gratitude can be powerful. It means that in any situation in life you can start a value creation and understanding process that increases the value of everything around you.  And like your muscles when working out, the more that you practice proactive gratitude, the faster and better you will become in appreciating your blessings in life – and the happier and more content you will be.

© 2018 Craig R. Hersch. Originally published in the Sanibel Island Sun.

Spoiling the Grandchildren

Having just sent my youngest off to Elon University in North Carolina, I’ve been reflecting on their time at home.  In particular, when my wife and I have a cross word with one of our daughters, it wasn’t uncommon for them to secretly get on their cell phones to dial Grandma from the privacy of their bedroom to complain.  They get to vent about what rotten parents Patti and I have become – and how we are being so unfair or otherwise overly demanding of them.

Imagine asking your daughter to pick up that wet towel off of the floor of her room for the hundredth time.  How unreasonable!

But having caring and loving grandparents is good. It balances out the family dynamic. Grandparents tend to provide a broader, calmer perspective. They’re not in the heat of the battle, and they’ve been through those battles before.

So it’s interesting for me as an estate-planning attorney to see how, in their estate plans, grandparents treat their grandchildren. A predominant school of thought is to leave everything to the children and let them take care of the grandchildren. Sometimes, however, the grandparents want to include the grandchildren directly in the estate plans.

And here’s where it gets interesting. Suppose that son Liam has two children and the other son Noah has three.  So if Grandpa leaves each grandchild $10,000, then Liam’s side of the family receives an extra $20,000 of bequests, while Noah’s side of the family receives $30,000. So is that unfair?

It’s all how you look at it. If you are trying to treat Liam and Noah equally, you could argue that Noah is getting more. But is he really? My experience with these issues is that grandparents tend to change their perspective on treating grandchildren “equally” over time. Allow me to explain.

While the grandchildren are young, (from birth through high school or college age) the grandparents tend to think of the grandchildren as extensions of their children.  In other words, Noah’s children should only get $6,667 each while Liam’s children each get $10,000 so that both sides (Liam and Noah) are treated equally – a total of $20,000 to each “side” of the grandchildren.

As the grandchildren exit college, however, the grandparents tend to think of them as their own individual unit with no difference as to whether they are offspring of one son or the other. In other words, as the grandchildren enter young adulthood, anecdotally I would tell you that in my experience the $10,000 bequest to each grandchild doesn’t seem to bother Grandma and Grandpa as much. They think of their grandchildren more as independent young adults and less as extensions of one side of the family or the other.

It gets trickier when there are stepchildren involved. Blended families are much more common today than they were a generation or so ago.  And in many cases, the step-grandparents have a close relationship with their step grandchildren. Here, the grandparents have to make a decision whether the step grandchildren should receive anything at all – or if they do whether they receive the same amount as the biological grandchildren.

Complicating matters further is that many don’t understand how the law works. When you leave amounts to a child per stirpes, and if that child predeceases you, then unless you have a specific provision to the contrary, that deceased child’s stepchildren do not receive amounts from your estate. If, on the other hand, your child has legally adopted the step-grandchildren, then they are no longer step-relations.  Adopted grandchildren are treated under the law the same as biological grandchildren.

You can decide to treat step-grandchildren (who have not been adopted) the same as biological grandchildren by so stating in your will or trust. But you actually have to make an express statement in your estate planning documents to have them treated that way.

Often grandparents don’t know what they should do about step-grandchildren. Should they be treated the same as biological grandchildren? Should they be treated half as well? Should they not be mentioned at all? Will their child be offended if their stepchildren are not provided for the same way as the biological grandchildren are treated?

There are no right or wrong answers. Each family is different. The relationship between the grandparents, the parents and the grandchildren will usually dictate how this all plays out. I usually encourage my clients to talk to their children to get their feelings on these matters. But ultimately it is the decision of the client what they want to put into their will or trust. The best way to approach these issues is to look into their own hearts to decide what’s best for them and their families.

Because ultimately how you decide to treat your family – blended family and all – in your estate plan is how you feel about those who are close to you.  Whether you have a large estate or a more modest estate, it really doesn’t matter.

What matters most are the relationships that you enjoy through the years. Because I know that when my kids feel upset with Patti and me – our parents feel warm and special that our kids want comfort from them.

And all of that means more than anything a will or trust can say.

© 2018 Craig R. Hersch. Originally published in the Sanibel Island Sun.