In “Pale Grey for Guilt,” John D. MacDonald suggests that we are born onto a sandbar in the river of time and die when we lose our footing and float with the current downstream.
The Sandbar in the River of Time
“I sought chill comfort in an analogy of death that has been with me for years. It doesn’t explain or justify. It just seems to remind me of how things are.
Picture a very swift torrent, a river rushing down between rocky walls. There is a long, shallow bar of sand and gravel that runs right down the middle of the river. It is under water. You are born and have to stand on that narrow, submerged bar, where everyone stands. The ones born before you, the ones older than you are, are upriver from you. The younger ones stand braced on the bar downriver. And the whole long bar is slowly moving down that river of time, washing away at the upstream end, and building up downstream.
Your time, the lives of all your contemporaries, schoolmates, your loves and your adversaries, is that part of the shifting bar on which you stand. And it is crowded at first. You can see the way it thins out, upstream from you. The old ones are washed away and their bodies go swiftly by, like logs in the current.
Downstream where the younger ones stand thick, you can see them flounder, lose footing, wash away. Always there is more room where you stand, but always the swift water grows deeper, and you feel the shift of the sand and the gravel under your feet, as the river wears it away. Someone looking for a safer place can nudge you off balance, and you are gone. Someone who has stood beside you for a long time gives a forlorn cry and you reach to catch their hand, but the fingertips slide away, and they are gone. There are the sounds in the rocky gorge, the roar of the water, the shifting, gritty sound of sand and gravel underfoot, the forlorn cries of despair as the nearby ones, and the ones upstream, are taken by the current. Some old ones who stand on a good place, well braced, understanding currents and balance, last a long time. A Churchill, fat cigar atilt, sourly amused at his own endurance, and, in the end, indifferent to rivers and the rage of waters. Far downstream from you are the thin, startled cries of the ones who never got planted, never got set, never quite understood the message of the torrent.
My birthday is this month and I just learned this week that someone I have known for two decades has just been diagnosed with stage four esophageal cancer. I find MacDonald’s analogy of death as losing your footing on a constantly eroding sandbar in the river of time, to be more accurate the older I get.
Postscript: Why Did MacDonald Pick Churchill?
MacDonald, born in 1916, was 52 when Pale Grey Guilt was published in 1968. Churchill had died at the age of 90 three years before in 1968, but his accomplishments as a military leader, political leader, and author stand out compared to any one else in the 20th century. It’s interesting that MacDonald ends with a reference to Churchill. I think it’s due not only to the breadth and depth of his accomplishments and his longevity but to several speeches he is most famous for.
I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined the government: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: victory. Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.
Winston Churchill “Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat” speech delivered in the House of Commons in Westminster on 13 May 1940. (First speech in House of Commons as Prime Minister)
Three weeks later France has collapsed and Britain has miraculously managed to evacuate several hundred thousand soldiers out of Dunkirk as part of a desperate rear guard action.
“We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”
Winston Churchill “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” June 4 1940
A year and half later with the “Battle of Britain” concluded successfully Churchill gave this speech:
But we must learn to be equally good at what is short and sharp and what is long and tough. It is generally said that the British are often better at the last. They do not expect to move from crisis to crisis; they do not always expect that each day will bring up some noble chance of war; but when they very slowly make up their minds that the thing has to be done and the job put through and finished, then, even if it takes months—if it takes years—they do it. […]
You cannot tell from appearances how things will go. Sometimes imagination makes things out far worse than they are; yet without imagination not much can be done. Those people who are imaginative see many more dangers than perhaps exist; certainly many more than will happen; but then they must also pray to be given that extra courage to carry this far-reaching imagination. But for everyone, surely, what we have gone through in this period—I am addressing myself to the School—surely from this period of ten months this is the lesson: never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never-in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.
Winston Churchill in speech to boys at Harrow School 29 October 1941
If you had to pick a 20th century leader most associated with tenacity and perseverance it would be Winston Churchill.
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