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Sandcastles

I came across a meditation practice that I’ve been thinking about for some time that I’ve found very useful in thinking about life.

A lot of us software engineers, at least the good ones, care deeply about our work and how it is made. Like a baker with cakes, or a blacksmith with swords, or an entrepreneur with a business, if there’s a defect with the end product, it’s like a monument to our failures. If such defects accumulate over time without our ability to address them, it hurts us even more; if those defects are introduced due to forces outside our control, more still.

I think it’s why people die; those little nicks in our soul, conspiring with the general unraveling of our telomeres, make it painful to enjoy the fruits of life and life itself. This is of course to say nothing of deeper trauma; one Hacker News article I read talks more in-depth about this phenomenon, which ends in psychogenic death, where “nothing – no warning, no beating, no pleading – can make them want to live”. I’ve noticed the cumulative stress from work and school over the years has caused me to age as well, particularly around the eyes. Before I had wrinkles and deep bags underneath my eyes; today I discovered I have wrinkles on top of my wrinkles when I squint. It makes an interesting grid pattern.

One thing that helps is seeing your creations as sandcastles.

When you’re not experienced with building a sandcastle, you would start off simple:

simple

And later on, when you gain more experience in building a sandcastle, you might try for something a bit more complex:

complex

There’s a common thread linking these two otherwise vastly different creations: their impermanence. Sooner or later, the sun will dry them out, the wind will erode their surfaces, and the waves will wash them away. Is it sad that they are gone and things will never be the same? Of course it is. But that’s not why we create them. We make them because their very creation makes us happy, because we climb a small hill in our lives and enjoy the view for a little while.

So it is with code, or cakes, or swords, or businesses, or nations, or life in general. It’s exciting when they begin anew. It’s enjoyable while it lasts. And when it ends, we remember the good times, the good memories, and how we made other people feel.


Thinking this way, along with copious breathing exercises, has helped me navigate a lot of the minefields through life that have sunk me in the past and would otherwise sink me now. Yes, it exists; no, it’s not perfect; yes, it makes people happy and that should make me happy. Will it end one day? Of course. But don’t let that fact distract you from the here and now.