Mrs. JPC and I spent a recent weekend at a beach on the shores of Lake Michigan. It is a beautiful and rejuvinating place, where a person can sit in peace, look at the splendor of creation, and spend some quality time with the one you love. Empty nesting has it’s privileges, to be sure.
The beach is also a place for people-watching. Some are swimmers who love playing in the water with their families and friends. Others are there to soak up the sun’s rays, and yet others are there to sit under a big umbrella reading a book. Some of my favorites were the middle-aged ladies who kept passing a big box of donuts around among themselves – my kind of day at the beach, let me tell you.
On the second day, we got a little closer to the water. Soon, what looked to be a large extended family showed up near us and plunked down right near the lapping waves. It was then that we saw some serious sand engineering get underway. Two or three of the guys had steel big-people shovels and began to dig. The little children were excitedly pitching in with their little plastic implements, mimicking what their fathers and uncles were doing with the real-man tools. I watched with anticipation as the men began what was clearly going to be a moat. I will confess to some excitement as I watched the operation get underway.
You see, I have always heard of people who make beautiful sand castles. I have even seen some pictures of a few of them. Here I was, with practically a ringside seat, to watch one of these temporary marvels rise from the damp sand. The moat got deeper and deeper, and each shovelful of sand added to the pile where the castle would soon be. Before long, the channel was extended to the water and the moat began to fill. The little ones were having great fun splashing in the moat as more shovels of dripping sand were piled atop the rising island in the middle.
After awhile, though, it became apparent that there was not going to be a sand castle. There was a moat all right, and an impressive one at that. Unfortunately though, it surrounded a sandpile that grew larger, but never became anything more than a mound of fill. So, a moat. Or maybe a ditch?
As I pondered this disappointing turn of events, two other groups of kids saw the grand moat and began excavation projects of their own. It was clear that they had neither the tools nor the engineering abilities of the first group, but they saw what their neighbors had done and figured that they could so something like it. So, additional holes were dug and water was brought into them, for, well, who knows? Just for the fun of it, I suppose. Another thing I pondered was if the leaders had built a castle instead of a ditch, would the followers have tried their hands at castles as well?
I wondered why I felt such disappointment. My first thought was “What the hell, guys? A moat is to protect something – who needs to protect a pile of sand?” As time passed, a more basic thought occurred to me. Here were these men who had some rudimentary engineering skill and who brought the right tools to make something beautiful. But they didn’t. They just dug a ditch. There is, of course, nothing wrong with ditches. Civilization certainly needs ditches, and those who dig them where they are needed are engaging in dignified and important work. But this was not the kind of ditch that was going to serve any purpose. I guess we could call it a recreational ditch. But am I so unusual that when given a choice between digging a ditch and building something beautiful, would choose the latter?
Soon, my mind started to wander to my own life. Am I building beautiful things with my talents and my tools? Or am I just digging ditches? Not literally, of course. This summer, I have spent more hours than I care to admit binge-watching all six seasons of The Sopranos. Those hours were not spent enjoying time with my wife and kids, or reading the stack of worthwhile books that is getting taller than it should, or improving my homestead, or even writing things here and at Curbside Classic. Perhaps my Sopranos viewing was the choice to dig a ditch instead of building my sand castle. And how many other times have I chosen mundane make-work or pointless diversions instead of building up my marriage, or my relationships with family and friends, or offering help or even a positive example to those around me? More than I like to think about.
Because we are talking sand castles here, I don’t mean to suggest that we should be building permanent monuments. We Catholics subscribe to the idea that pretty much everything we do here on earth is temporary anyway, so perhaps the sand castle analogy is a pretty good one. But if our little (or big) sand castles can bring some beauty, awe and wonder into a world increasingly ruled by the dreary utilitarianism of modern culture, aren’t they things worth building?
I will confess that my first idea on this topic was to point out how everyone else should build more sand castles in their lives and dig fewer recreational ditches. However, the better focus is on how I can do this in my own life. So I should say thanks to those anonymous folks who have inspired me to take a walk with my wife, read better books, cook better food for family and friends, do a better job at living my faith and do all of this in a way that improves the lives of others, and not just my own, even if only slightly. Maybe some others will see my efforts and be inspired to build some sand castles of their own, and not just dig another pointless hole. I would rather live in a world of more castles and fewer ditches any day. Wouldn’t you?