Ben Kesselman was the Wilton High School student body president for the 2020-2021 school year. He will attend Dartmouth University in the fall.
Good afternoon Wilton High School, let’s hear it for the Class of 2021! [APPLAUSE]
You know, I think this is a really bittersweet moment. For years, I was kind of ready to leave this town and never look back. But now that it’s actually happening, now that I’m actually leaving, I realize how much I’m going to miss this place. But anyway, onto my speech.
I think people like sad songs because they remind us that we’re not alone. The fact that there is someone out there who has had such a similar experience as you, that they wrote a song about it is incredibly comforting. And this made me think, it made me realize that in all our lifetimes, we may never have an original experience. While the finer details of our lives are distinctly ours, there will always be others who have had the same emotions, ideas, and experiences as you.
Though this may sound bleak, it is in fact, a beautiful thing. It means that we’re not alone, that there is a common thread that connects every single human being. The ability to find these common threads and build a shared reality together because of it is an amazing gift. And I think that the single greatest folly in human existence is that when we grow up, we stop sharing our realities.
The Jungle Book tells a story of a child, Mowgli, who washes up in a basket in the jungles of India. Bagheera, the black panther, finds him and takes him to safety. The animals of the jungle, all band together to raise Mowgli, except for Shere Kahn, the evil tiger. When he returns to the jungle, he vows to kill Mowgli. Bagheera tells Baloo the bear that Mowgli would only be safe in the man-village.
Baloo hears the idea and cries out in desperation, “Man-village — they’ll ruin him! They’ll make a man out of him.”
See Baloo feared that the man village would corrupt Mowgli, that it would strip away his youthful innocence and replace it with dreams of power and success. It would threaten their shared reality, such that over time, Mowgli would stop exploring the jungle and begin destroying it in the name of civilization.
But to Mowgli, all is well. There is an allure in the class and luxury of a civilized society. He finds beauty in shining gold, hunger for spices, and utility in man’s tools. Man would clothe him, teach him to read and write, and show him how to make fire and how to hunt. Eventually, he would stop reinventing his reality and start refining himself. He would grow up and set real goals. He was done playing around in the jungle with the animals.
Baloo saw something in Mowgli’s future that Mowgli could not yet realize for himself: in the process of growing up, the man-village would consume him. His goals of power and success would become his reality. He would work hard for them. He would sacrifice for them and he would pursue them at the expense of his relationships. If he built civilization, he would have to destroy the jungle, the homes of the animals that raised him. If he used man’s fire and wore man’s clothes, he would scare them off. The man-village would drive a wedge between his reality and the reality of those he loved. By the time Mowgli accomplished his goals, he would have no one to share the moment with. He would be alone.
Chris McCandless, who died in the Alaskan wilderness trying to isolate himself from humanity, wrote in his final days, “Happiness is only real when shared.” Baloo knew what we, like Chris McCandless and Mowgli, realize often too late: There is nothing more important than the people we choose to share our reality with, and that there is nothing if we choose not to share it at all.
Think back to the times we spent on the playground as kids. We were, for the most part, strangers but we were all friends. It was the place where new relationships were formed. Anyone could join in on a game of tag or kickball. We were upset when recess ended and even more upset when it was our turn to kick and we had to go back inside. We hated going back to class because a part of us understood that there was something fundamentally wrong with the idea that we had to sit down and stop experiencing the world with our friends, with the idea that if we worked hard now, we could play hard later. But we have since changed our minds and decided that the man village is more important than the playground.
I spent years in high school working hard to get into one of the best schools in the world. I thought that if I suffered for four years to earn it, I could then return to the playground and enjoy the world.
But I was wrong. Eventually, I achieved my goal and it felt incredible for a moment, but the moment quickly passed and I had nothing. There was no playground to return to. Goals are amazing things and they give us purpose, but we should never pursue them at the expense of our relationships. Happiness is only real when shared.
So let’s grow old, but not grow up. Treat the world like a playground and find meaning in the now. Your choices in this moment determine your opportunities and experiences in the future. If you spend now consumed by your goals, you will have nothing and nobody to share the fruits of your labor with.
So have fun. Don’t take things so seriously. Find people who give your life purpose and meaning and put them at the forefront of everything you do. The world is a gift to you and you are each a gift to the world. So make the most of it and never let the man-village make men and women out of us. Thank you.