Sand Castles and Cathedrals

Sand castles can be simple mounds, or amazingly intricate sculptures.  But regardless of their complexity, part of the joy in creating them (and some of their inherent beauty) comes from the fact that someone put time and effort into something so temporary.  They’re an extravagance, created with the knowledge that in a day or two, or even in just a few hours, they will be utterly destroyed.  Not just ruined, mind you.  Erased.  As if they never existed.  For a sand castle’s brief life, their only impact is on the people who built them and who viewed them, and even that impact is temporary.

Cathedrals, on the other hand, are a generational undertaking.  Those who start them will be long gone before they are completed.  And they endure as a monument and a legacy.  They leave a lasting impression on those that encounter them, and most often those that laid the foundations never know how far-reaching their impact was.  Cathedrals too are an extravagance, not because they are temporary, but precisely because they so far outlast those that participated in their construction.

When we’re At Work Doing Our Art, most of our time is spent building sand castles.  They might be incredibly meaningful and well-crafted sand castles, with our hearts and souls poured into every corner, wall, moat, and turret.  And if we enjoy building them, they’re worth doing well.  They’ll bring joy to an audience, and they can teach us important lessons about architecture and aesthetics.  But they are still sand castles, meant to be washed away. To be erased.

As we master our crafts, we might one day create a cathedral.  We might one day finally possess the skill, the maturity, and the courage to construct a life’s work, worth passing on to future generations.  Something that might endure for 500 years.  Something truly worth devoting our whole selves to.

It’s easy to believe our work is a cathedral.  We let others convince us that the thing they’re paying us to do is worth every sacrifice we’ll make to complete it.  Sometimes we’ll even convince ourselves it’s true.  

But treating a sand castle like a cathedral will destroy you.

Never confuse which one you’re building.



  1. says

    I love this metaphor. I will use it, claim that I invented it, and I will sound smart to my friends and colleagues.

    I like to imagine that in most cases when Great Art was being created, the artist in question believed they were making a sandcastle, and were greatly surprised to discover (or, not discover, if the Art was not recognized until after their death) that they had made a cathedral.

    I think I generalize your idea here into a mantra: assume that everything you make is a sandcastle. Let the audience decide if you have, in fact, made a cathedral.

    • Jay says

      Nooooo my metaphor! It’s my only good one!

      A fine point you make regarding Great Art. A small caveat: it you’re actually building a real life cathedral, you probably don’t want to pretend it’s a sand castle. But you know. It’s not a perfect metaphor. WHY DO YOU MOCK ME, JASON, WHY?

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