De Benignite

in Editorials | January 19, 2024

          Almost 20 weeks have passed since Head of School Stephen Murray H ’54 ’55 ’63 ’65 ’16 P ’16 ’22 delivered his Convocation address “On Being Kind,” so now we should assess how well the Lawrenceville community has heeded his call. 

          In his speech, Murray envisioned a student body that leans into “common, everyday opportunities” to be kind to others. While Murray shared stories of outright heroism, his real message was to take the right action rather than the easiest or least risky response to every situation. Murray cited examples of his befriending someone unpopular, standing up to cyberbullying, and inviting a stranger to play volleyball. But even smaller acts of kindness exist that students can choose to do every day: greeting classmates on the paths, sitting with a lonely Lawrentian in Tsai Commons instead of with your friend group, and chatting with housemates when you see them. Kindness is a step up from common courtesy or being “nice”—kindness involves taking a genuine interest in the people around you. In many ways, kind actions are the foundation of any relationship: in fact, besides mutual connection, most friendships begin with someone reaching out and taking an interest in a peer—a simple act of kindness. 

          However, if one polls the student body, most students will say that Lawrenceville does not have a culture of kindness—according to the definition above. On average, we Lawrenceville students do not actively attempt to befriend as many people as possible, even though everyone can teach us something, and most students believe diversity in thought adds value to their lives. In their FOCUS meeting, many Circle Prefects described Lawrenceville as “cliquey.” The Circle-Crescent divide is mirrored by how we clump around the Harkness table. We even begin seeing friendships as transactional, calculating whose companionship offers us emotional or social benefits and leaving others by the wayside—a constant comparison of “worth” that is both unnecessary and draining. While many would agree that we should show more kindness around campus, we ignore countless daily opportunities to do so, and fail to go beyond common courtesy—beyond what is required. 

          Asking for an authentic “culture of kindness” is on the idealistic side—for one, kindness involves reaching out beyond one’s comfort zone, a troublesome task in its own right and made even more daunting by life at Lawrenceville. At Lawrenceville, time is a priceless commodity, and squeezing the most value out of the limited moments of leisure becomes imperative. This pressure on students disincentivizes the type of kindness Murray asked, in his speech, to see. It is easier and more immediately rewarding to spend time with existing friends instead of trying to break the ice with new people with whom we might not connect very well. Trying to widen a friend group is made especially difficult for members of the Circle and Crescent: the little interactions that often build lasting friendships, such as innocently hanging out on a house’s front porch, or joining in on a pickup game outside, are hindered by the Circle and Crescent houses’ physical separation. Furthermore, because of our very purpose at this School—to be thoroughly prepared to enter the world—we spend the majority of our day working for ourselves, toward our own grades and goals. Friendships, though necessary for well-being, take time and effort, and at Lawrenceville, we can only prioritize a few of them. Taking these obstacles into account, the campus of kindness that Murray envisioned in “On Being Kind” seems a bit out of our reach. 

          However, that an utopic School culture is impossible does not mean we should not strive to be better. We should hold our casual acquaintanceships in higher esteem and should seek to forge more such connections. It is easy to make and maintain these relationships—it only takes greeting classmates by name when you pass them and catching up whenever the opportunity presents itself. Also, our low-stakes relationships are easier to appreciate when we drop the cold label of “acquaintance”—such a hierarchy in our interactions isn’t necessary. Instead of leading with calculation, actively recognizing the positives in others—their skills, their unique perspectives, or the way they make you feel— will lead to many more friendships. The consistent way to be interesting to others is to be interested in others. To realize that the classmate sitting alone at Tsai can teach you something, if you sit down with them and ask questions with genuine curiosity, is to be kind. Especially at Lawrenceville, where students hold a broad array of talents, we should seek to meet all the people we can. 

          So, we return to Murray’s call. Do meaningful things: invite someone new to play football in the Circle, talk to a classmate as you wait before class, and greet people by name when you pass them during the day. Kindness is most impactful to people who are the most vulnerable. Seize the chance to connect with someone! The point is not to be nice simply because it’s convenient or because you were told to back in September; in fact, the opposite should be true. The purest forms of kindness are the ones that have no motive behind them, actions taken without promise of a reward. Common courtesy is the norm at Lawrenceville, but appreciating others and reaching out when able will make our time at Lawrenceville all the more rewarding.