David Delzell: Find a connection to the world

Hi seniors. I want to thank you for inviting me to speak to you this year. Since it is the last year here for both of us, it is meaningful that you want to hear parting words from me. I know that you really want some “shoutouts,” and there will be some, but I find I really do have some things to tell you. It’s true, living a long life does give one, if not wisdom, then, at least, perspective. I am delighted and honored to be able to share my perspective. The next few years should be amazing. Life has a new chapter. If you think you changed a lot in high school, just wait.

We are both graduating. You are going on to the years that will polish you into adulthood and the world of work, adventure, family and fruition. My graduation is a little more restful, but I will continue to explore the world both without and within. You have excitement and probably some fear about the challenges ahead. I share both of those feelings. I intend to study as I hope you are going to do. Developing an intellect is one of the ways to find peace and connection to the world. Developing an intellect, an open interest in the world, is what you should be doing during the next few years. It is not as easy as it sounds. You have to taste everything and be open to the taste of everything. If someone were to ask me what to do (I know you won’t because what young person really likes to get advice), I would tell you to read a history of some earlier era, read the latest edition of Scientific American. Reread one of the novels you were made to read in school except this time read it for enjoyment. Take a dance lesson or two. Go for a hike in the wild. Go to a museum and spend the time to read the captions. Majoring in some subject, learning a career, will give depth but make sure to also do the work to get breadth. Having an open, inquiring frame of mind builds on itself and gives you a taste for sampling the world. I am going off to explore the world as much as I can and I hope that you do so as well. Your task is to gain wisdom by studying the world.

When I was 18, I thought the world was doomed. I knew about environmental degradation, nuclear war threatened, we were getting embroiled in a bitter war in Vietnam and the economy was showing signs of wear. I had hopes that my generation could “save the world.” We were full of hope, righteous indignation and naiveté. The music was like the Beatles “Love Is All You Need.” The world has not changed much except we may have slid further. The environment will impact all of you, the simple threat of nuclear war has given away to nuclear proliferation, and the economy looks pretty threadbare with more and more people doing less and less well. I won’t comment on the music but I hope you are the generation that saves the world. It still seems to need saving.

My last year here has been wonderful. I am filled with nostalgia as I look at you. I had so many good conversations with so many vibrant young people that I feel wealthy. The loud girls, MacKenzie, Tina, Nicole and others came every period seven lunch. The hall crowd outside my door was noisy but as fun and nice as one could ever imagine, right Mary Beth? Kyle wandered around looking both smart and confused and joked with me about it. Keiley and Sarah anchored the runners — I went and watched them. They made running look like meditation. Roger tried his hand at teaching calculus. Ethan, we still need to finish that chess game. Lauren, I’ve told that wide-mouthed frog joke to as many people as I can get to listen to it. Hannah, you will make it to France. There are far too many great memories and wonderful people to ever mention them all in a short speech.

Teaching can be stressful. One of the things I did to stay calm was go weed a patch in my garden. There is something about taking a small area and making it perfect that eases the mind and soothes the aches of the day. It was not just the act of pulling some weeds that did it but the fact that I was concentrating on doing a good and careful job with a small piece of my life. It probably doesn’t matter what you choose to weed, as long as it is life affirming. Joy starts with connecting to the world through yourself. Through yourself means you do an activity with desire and satisfaction rather than obligation. If you just used the Spark Notes for that novel you wrote about, you missed the flavor and the intensity of the interaction with the author that makes reading so satisfying. Doing something quick, so that you get through it, cuts off the power of taste and experience. Getting through it just — gets you through, it does not add to breadth. It does not foster internal growth. Some of you already have rich inner lives. Some of you are just starting. The next chapter in your life is the perfect time to develop the resources that help carry you through the rest of your life. My best advice is “don’t waste it, use it to make yourself rich.”

The years you have just been through were packed with deadlines. High school sometimes seems in opposition to the need for contemplation. It may be that it has to be that way to get you ready to grow. After high school, time gets structured differently. You are older and more mature and can make use of a new time structure. Time for a young adult gets stretched in a wonderful way and gives you the opportunity to grow. You have time to think about your life if you use the time well. I think that I can feel, when I meet someone, whether they have taken the time to be thoughtful about themselves, if they know themselves. Such people feel grounded. People that have done the work connecting to the world through themselves have a certain truth in them. This truth shines in what they do and say. The philosophers tell us that you build your own truth. Your internal world is your own and you should furnish it with taste and love. You are the builder, the architect. Build a place to have a rewarding life. It is by building into yourself the capacity for joy that you actually become joyful. Having a capacity for joy enables you to like yourself. Having truth inside, being real, attracts and influences other people and makes you wealthy.

That’s it. You have a lot to do. You have to learn so much. There is so much to be experienced. There is an inner world that you have just gotten started with and it needs to be explored and, along the way, you have to save the world. Growing up is wonderful and sad; wonderful because of its flowering, sad because there is loss in becoming a new person. Saying good-bye is also wonderful and sad. Maybe I’ll just say good-bye the way my young friend Kate does it. O.K. Bye.

Mr. Delzell gave this speech during the 2014 Wilton High School graduation ceremony on Saturday, June 21.

Read more about the 2014 Wilton High School graduation commencement here.