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COLUMN

The Economy of Kindness Time Away from Home Reminds Us of What We’ve Forgotten at College

Roy Esaki

The long-awaited reprieve from the stresses of college life has come and -- a hundred hours and ten pounds later -- gone. Relatives, pie, and servings of fowl have made way for the familiar routine of relativity, pi, and foul servings. What now remains of the break is the bittersweet remembrance of the world we have departed, and the heightened awareness of what we have gained, and what we have lost, by our departure from home. Having been completely isolated from all things and people MIT-related (save my bags of textbooks, of course), I was surprised to realize just how much college life made me forget through neglect and disuse.

Forgetting people and places from home is understandable, but the loss of perspective, courtesy, and appreciation for generosity is something that must be guarded against.

The first concept easily forgotten in college is that there’s much more to life than just college. Many students, with their extracurriculars and off-campus engagements, are well aware of the relative insignificance of individual assignments, courses, or social events. But for students thoroughly immersed in college, there is a tendency to over-emphasize the importance of what we do in college.

College is not completely absurd, of course, and to discount the worth of academic assignments is just as harmful as to become obsessed over work. But it’s easy to forget that so many events and tasks of our working life -- the sort of events that episodes of Seinfield or Fraiser are based upon -- don’t have much to do with college. Managing the mortgage, getting married, minding the in-laws, raising kids, making sure the cranberry sauce isn’t too thick, and all of the other things we aren’t yet aware of have nothing to do with college. Certainly, what we do now may profoundly influence our future, but it hardly ensures, or precludes, our future worth or happiness.

Another concept that’s easy to forget in college is the need for courtesy. College is, after all, an individualistic, “me-based” endeavor. We decide to attend a college to suit ourselves, to become better individuals in the ways we see fit. We choose our courses, living conditions, and extracurriculars to suit our needs, and do the assignments and tasks as we wish. That’s fine, as we should be able to direct our own lives. It’s easy to forget, however, that our actions do affect others, and that we should be mindful of the consequences for others.

Students often share the belief that all people are free to do as they wish, as long as their actions don’t harm others. Essentially, consideration, and the courtesy of going out of one’s way to benefit others, aren’t necessary. As a trivial, but illustrative, example, most students agree that if someone makes a mess in the bathroom, then he (it’s probably a guy that made the mess) should clean it up. Of course, some students unfortunately reason that it is the custodian’s duty to clean up any mess we wantonly make, and refrain from cleaning up after themselves. So spills are left uncleaned, litter is carelessly strewn about, doors are left unopened for people with both hands full, and everyone passes by thinking, “Hey, it’s not my problem.”

Staying as a guest at a former teacher’s house over Thanksgiving, I realized just how much courtesy is necessary, and how much it could be increased in college. When you’re a guest, you not only clean up after yourself, but you try to leave things better than you found them. If there’s water on the bathroom counter, you clean it up, necessarily if it’s your mess, but even if it’s not. If you’re idly sitting around while the hosts are in the kitchen, you actively offer to help out. It’s common courtesy to consider interests beyond immediate, personal interests. Heartfelt community service endeavors are great, but we should also remember to show courtesy daily to roommates, dormmates, faculty and staff, and others in our lives.

The critical reader would comment that unlike guests, students have paid their own fare, and are recipients of no acts of generosity or gifts that must be repaid through courtesy. I must admit, during my radical days of youth, I ventured such an argument in a high school column. As I reflect on the hospitality my former teacher showed me in having me over for the Thanksgiving weekend, and as I considered the compassion and generosity that my friends, family, and teachers showed me, I’m convinced that to believe oneself to be completely independent is inaccurate, and to strive to be so is needlessly anti-social.

Independence is good, but independently showing and returning kindness can only be a good idea. Isolationism works for neither countries nor people, and the interpersonal economy is based on reciprocal generosities and courtesies. These are the types of realizations -- of how to be happy, of how to be nice people -- that aren’t taught in college economics, but that can certainly be learned by college students.