The Great Empty Box

As many seniors returned from break this year, with college applications completed, they found themselves looking forward to the future, wondering what new paths they would take into adulthood.

As many seniors returned from break this year, with college applications completed, they found themselves looking forward to the future, wondering what new paths they would take into adulthood. As a senior, I found myself reflecting on my own future. In my time at Lawrenceville I’ve heard senators, professors, journalists, and many other accomplished public figures lecture on what it means to live a good, meaningful life. They had all, in one way or another, outlined the ideals of their success: authenticity, passion, benevolence, autonomy, among other things. Yet, after four years of speeches, I couldn’t help but still feel lost. I still hadn’t found the ever elusive “true inner passion” of my life, despite having heard it over and over. While I could easily recite the words of my lecturers, I felt no closer to them than I did my freshman year.

In his novel, “The Second Mountain,” David Brooks describes this experience as being handed a “great empty box of freedom.” As we look for direction in our wandering lives, we are told that the future is limitless and that we must search within ourselves to identify our true passions from this endless set of possibilities. In search of these passions, we seek new experiences, hoping that one day they will sum up to a life changing impetus. At Lawrenceville, we live by the mantra of pursuing experiences: An Explorations credit here, a speech there, and a wandering adolescent becomes a purposeful adult.

This theme of racking up experiences is reflected in our approach to community service at Lawrenceville. On MLK day, students participated in various service events at organizations in the local community. Following the day of service, students were asked to discuss what they hope to remember from their experiences, but my peers and I could not identify a point of great significance. Yes, we had heard countless speeches on the value of understanding our service, the importance of giving back. Of course, at Lawrenceville we are endowed with a vast set of resources, resources which should set us up to have pursuit beyond ourselves. And to add to this, we now knew that our dreams had to have “legs”. However, when many Lawrentians reflect back on their lessons of giving, memories of various speakers and places of service, most don’t draw the type of indelible lesson that creates an impetus for a “bigger dream.” Instead, for me, what remains is a swirling nucleus of ideals and moral guidelines. After four years I can, without hesitation, repeat the ideals of “global citizenship” and “connecting with the community” but as unlived goals they resemble platitudes more than actionable steps. While Lawrenceville devotes significant time into explicating the goals of a life lived meaningfully, such ideals remain hollow without asking students to understand the foundational values that lead to such a life.

During his tenure as Features Editor of The Lawrence, Student Body President Yiannis Vandris ’17 wrote an editorial “[challenging] our community to define” the values it claims to adhere to. In essence, Vandris argued that one must define what is right before attempting to live by it. The speakers we see in school meeting and on MLK day, while providing the outlines of a meaningful life, fail to translate this image into action for a questioning adolescent. The same is true for our service, where we cobble together a set of experiences, hoping, somehow, to draw meaning from a swirling set of community ideals. Far from the indelible mark that I had heard about the value of community, my service was instead a fleeting, temporal moment to add to the many MLK days of my past.

By rushing to partake in service without establishing a sound basis for the ideals that it represents, we create a culture obsessed with racking up experiences that do not serve us in the long run. Instead, one time service events like MLK day should be replaced, or at least preceded, by programs that facilitate conversations around moral issues. These school wide events, such as Community Day, give students the tools to define our values for ourselves.