My father worked nights, riding the trains between Chicago and Cincinnati sorting the mail for the US Postal Service. So when I returned home from school, my dad would already be home from work, there to greet me.
Never once did he ask, “How was your day?”
But every day, from when I was a Kindergartener until I was a Senior in high school, he did the same thing:
First, he would usher me into the living room, which he called the ‘parlor’ because he grew up in Sommerville, Massachusetts. There he kept three altars (as any good Catholic Democrat did back then). One altar to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, one to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and a third to President John F. Kennedy.
There, my father would ask me to say in front of each altar one of three things that I did today to make the world a better place.
When I finished, he would remind me that it was our job to be good to and care for one another.
While it irritated me some days when I was struggling to come up with three things (especially by the time I reached high school), later on I realized what a gift this was to me.
Just before my high school graduation, Dad passed away. But what he left me was a framework for life.
To this day, I find myself looking for ways I can make the world a better place. In fact, I put myself to sleep at night recalling what I did, in some small way (even a smile for a child in a store), to make the world better.
Of course, today I also like to see this activity through the lens of neuroscience!! If you know anything about default mode networks, you’ll see right away how this activity helps to train our brains.
What is a default mode network? We each have one. This network either defaults to worry or to creativity.
This is one reason gratitude journals are so useful, because noticing what we’re grateful for helps our brain default to gratitude instead of worry. Not that worry is bad or wrong, but it helps when we can switch between worry and creativity instead of always defaulting to our worried mind.
So, by training my brain to think about my role in life as a citizen of the world, Dad was helping my brain default to creativity instead of worry. He’d probably laugh out loud if he heard me explain it this way, but like a lot of wisdom passed on through the ages, there’s often a way for neuroscience to explain why something has such a positive effect on us.
Here’s an invitation.
Tonight, I invite you as you're falling asleep to come up with three things that you did today to make the world a better place. No altars required!
My dad sure would get a kick out of knowing that his memory lives on in this way.