In his novel The Shack William Paul Young struggles with the human experience of tragedy.
He explores the question of how people heal from calamity. How do we live in a world where unspeakably horrifying things take place? What is the best possible outcome that can be hoped for as people move through the terrible brokenness and pain that accompany so many human situations?
For William Paul Young the goal seems to be that people who face great affliction should get free of their “Great Sadness“.
chapter 12 – As Mack made his way down the trail toward the lake, he suddenly realized that something was missing. His constant companion, The Great Sadness, was gone. It was as if it had been washed away in the mists… The Great Sadness would not be part of his identity any longer. (Young, William Paul. The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity. Los Angeles, California: Windblown Media, 2007, 170)
Young appears to repeat the process near the end of The Shack as MacKenzie emerges from his healing journey with the Trinity, Young writes,
Mack realized also that he felt no pain, not even in his usually aching joints. In fact, he had never felt this well, this whole. His head was clear and he breathed deeply the scents and aromas of the night and of the sleeping flowers in the garden, many of which had begun to awaken to his celebration. 211
And, on the second to last page of the book in the narrator’s “After Words”, Young says again of Mackenzie,
The Great Sadness is gone and he experiences most days with a profound sense of joy. 247
I understand that, in the aftermath of an agonizing loss, there can be a paralyzing burden that poisons a person’s life, from which any sane person would long to be released. And indeed, most spiritual traditions hold out the promise that over time this oppression can lift. The burden of tragedy does diminish as we learn to let go of our need for life to be different than it is and regain the ability to trust the forces of life.
But, for “The Great Sadness” to be “gone… washed away in the mists”, seems to me neither a desirable nor a possible outcome. To expect that “The Great Sadness” should disappear, risks putting a burden of guilt upon the sufferer that merely adds to the tragedy. If my six-year-old child or grand-child was brutally murdered, I do not believe that “The Great Sadness” would ever vanish completely. I would carry the shards of that brokenness with me for the rest of my life.
So, what is a possible and desirable outcome in the face of overwhelming grief?
Richard Rohr, in a recent interview with Krista Tippett gives, what is for me, a profound and powerful vision of what we might hope for in living with tragedy. Rohr says:
I remember some of the times when I was most happy, after — I used to spend the whole of Lent in a hermitage alone, and I’d come back just sort of glowing, like a bliss ninny, for the next couple weeks. But when people would look at me, I remember again and again, they said, “Richard, you look sad.” And I said, “Oh my gosh, do I?” Because in fact, I’m feeling exactly the opposite. And I don’t know how that transferred to my face as sadness, but when you live at this deep time, deeper level of communion or love or grace or whatever you want to call it, there is a heaviness to it that — “Is the rest of the world not seeing what I’m seeing? Why are they so caught up in trivialities, and why are they making one another suffer so much?”
So it’s the strangest combination of being able to hold deep sadness and deep contentment at the very same time. So I discovered that in myself, and my most wonderful moments were also my most sad moments, which leads you to a kind of participation in what I called earlier “the one sadness,” that your very fact of enjoying grace and love carries with it a dark side that I didn’t deserve to know this, I didn’t earn this, and most people think I’m crazy if I try to talk about it. So the two intense emotions very often coexist in the contemplative mind.
So that’s what taught me this both/and world view, that opposites do not contradict one another. In fact, they complement and deepen one another.
Rohr is unwilling to collapse the tension that Young appears to want to resolve. Rohr is content to live in a “both/and world”. It is possible to hold The Great Sadness without being paralyzed or overwhelmed by the pain.
The Great Sadness has continuing work to do in our lives. It breaks our hearts open. It schools us in patience and compassion. It calls us forward into deep knowing, greater wisdom, and fuller love.
The Great Sadness is not an enemy to be defeated. It is a companion to be embraced. It is a profound teacher from whom the on-going deep lessons of love can be learned. In the face of the inevitable presence of some degree of The Great Sadness, the only way to continue moving forward is to relearn the art of surrender and choose again and again to open to the possibility of trust.