This past week, I stopped to read the inscriptions on the walls of Memorial Hall for the first time since I arrived at Yale. I was returning from a run at East Rock and was cold, sweaty and tired, though elated that I had taken an hour to be away from Yale and all the voices that echo when I walk around campus. For once, I found myself alone in the strange and beautiful hall-room between Commons and Woolsey. With my footsteps echoing, I paused to read — really read — what the walls had to say.
The names overwhelmed me. Marble walls with more names than I could count, names stacked on names, ranks, class years, places of birth and death. The statistics of lives terminated too young and too suddenly on battlefields at home and abroad, every name representing a life, a monumental investment of time, energy, education, love. Perhaps I’ve gotten good at ignoring these names because they remind me of the extent to which I live in the shadow of their legacy. They fought to preserve the country — indeed, the institution — that I live within, and that sense of indebtedness requires more time and energy, more space for reflection, than I have to give on a daily basis.
My meditation on memory became a meditation on solitude, on the ways in which my being alone in Memorial Hall allowed me to reflect on these names I don’t — or try not — to see. On a usual day, Memorial Hall is full of the sound of conversations, people tugging at their backpacks and putting on their coats after lunch. It is exactly the “cacophony” that William Deresiewicz describes in his speech on solitude and leadership, a cacophony in which “it is impossible to hear your own voice, whether it’s yourself you’re thinking about or anything else.”
Deresiewicz, a former English professor at Yale, understands better than anyone how hard it is to be alone at Yale. His speech on solitude, delivered at West Point to the graduating class two years ago, muses on the need for leaders to ask difficult questions of themselves so they establish their own values without the voices of other people or institutional cultures resounding in their heads.
The stakes are high, Deresiewicz suggests: Our generation has stopped asking why we do things, failing to look more closely at the values we espouse and the people we are becoming because we don’t have the space, time, energy or training to do so. The failure of our education to cultivate reflection means that I don’t read the walls of memory in a room that I walk through most days — and it means that I don’t think about what those names symbolize in terms of courage, devotion and solitude.
As I returned to the cacophony that surrounded my moment of solitude, I examined the engraved words above the four figures that stand on the way out to Beinecke Plaza. “Memory here guards ennobled names,” the words above a woman holding an hourglass read. Beside her, a man clutches a sword and shield with the Yale crest on it. “Courage disdains fame and wins it,” his read. On the other wall the quotations expressed a celebration of devotion to cause and an endorsement of the peace that comes on the other side of sacrifice. Together, the four short sayings echoed Deresiewicz’s quest for solitude, for self-made morality — and my own failure to think about the symbolism of these names and walls.
The men whose names cover those walls died alone, bravely, facing something that I will never fully understand. When the walls tell me that “courage disdains fame and wins it” or that “devotion gives sanctity to strife,” I reflect that courage and devotion are attributes formed out of time spent alone, staring one’s own limitations in the face and drawing conviction from places deep within.
I may never be called upon to give my life for my country, for God or even for Yale, but every day I live, I want to remember that I walk in the shadow of forces greater than myself, in the wake of men and women who fought and died — on the battlefield and off it — to preserve and create the future that all of us must also seize, protect and defend in whatever way we can.
It is only in solitude that we can look at what we have lost and what we must find: in ourselves, on our walls, by looking closely at the worlds internal and external that sometimes we forget or try not to see.
Zoe Mercer-Golden is a junior in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.