The Timeless and the Temporal

Newsletter No. 10

Anne Snyder
Anne Snyder is the editor-in-chief of Comment magazine, a publication of Cardus, and the creator and host of Breaking Ground. From 2016 to 2019 she directed The Philanthropy Roundtable‘s Character Initiative, a program seeking to help foundations and business leaders re-envision the nature and shape of formative institutions needed for social and moral renewal in the United States. Her path-breaking guidebook, The Fabric of Character, was published in 2019. Anne is also a 2020 Emerson Fellow, a Trinity Forum Senior Fellow, and a Fellow at the Center for Opportunity Urbanism, a Houston-based think tank that explores how cities can drive opportunity for the bulk of their citizens. She has published widely, and currently lives in Washington, D.C.

There is a wonderful book titled Shantung Compound: The Story of Men and Women Under Pressure, written by theologian Langdon Gilkey in 1966. It is at once a memoir and a portrait of human nature when almost everything has been stripped away. Shantung Compound was an international internment camp run by the Japanese near the city of Weihsien in China’s Shantung province during World War II, and Gilkey was a prisoner. Years after being released, he went back through his notes of the experience and detailed what it was like to forge a moral and political community from scratch—the good, the bad, and the ugly.

We are not now in such a dramatic erasure of life as we knew it prior to 2020, but the scale of disruption is sufficient to encourage reflection on why certain aspects of our old normal are stubbornly sticking around, why other aspects are reinventing themselves (often creatively) with fewer available ingredients, and why still others are or should be released. There’s enough talk swirling—including by us here at Breaking Ground—that we should be careful about the desire to “go back to normal.” But it’s worth exegeting what precisely of so-called normal needs to be discarded, what needs to be grieved, and what should and must and can’t help but return.

This week, Breaking Ground had the privilege of publishing two essays on the poetry and plot of our timeless needs amid temporal upheaval. J.L. Wall reflects on mourning time as practiced in the Jewish tradition, sobered by the limits of his own power to protect his newborn daughter as her surgery is delayed by COVID. Kathryn Watson offers a poignant, whimsical glimpse of the pop-up community her neighbors have ritualized on her Staten Island block.

“We let go of the things we had believed and became a universe emptied, pulling in space debris,” Watson writes. “I craved truth to offer my children—truth about the virus, but also truth about More. . . . I wonder about the things that will make my kids comfortable, knowing they are not the same as the things that will make them good. I think about the gifts of majesty, and dignity, and wonder. The privilege of letting things we see mean only what they are, and hoping to one day understand what they were for.”