The Great Sadness

by Artie Van Why (

I recently began rereading The Shack by William P. Young. I read it several years ago; intrigued by the concept of God being presented as a loving African American woman. I don’t remember what affect, if any, it had on me then. I know I probably read it hoping for a renewed spiritual insight; which is why I’m giving it another go.

I’ve been stranded in the middle of a desert for quite a while; dried up spiritually. I can’t seem to get a handle on a definition of God or any Higher Power, that can change the way I look at my life; which has already been changed the moment my foot hit the pavement of the streets surrounding the World Trade Center the morning of 9/11.

I want to wince when someone suggests that God must have saved me for a reason. I recoil inwardly at that suggestion because there is no reason I should have lived while so many others didn’t. And I can’t believe in a God that would “pick and choose” among us that horrific morning.

Yet, having survived, I’m burdened with personally wanting this life of mine to count for something. I don’t know if there is a God or other Power that can provide me with purpose. I sometimes ask the Universe to let me be aware of doors to be opened or paths to be taken. I don’t know if that is foolish but it gives me a reason to at least keep going one day at a time. But do things like that (doors to open, paths to take) really happen?

I’m hoping that finding a usefulness in life would counter that which is always with me; sadness. Because, despite the good things and loving people that I have in my life, there is always a sadness that I doubt will ever go away completely.

The protagonist of The Shack labels it “The Great Sadness”; for he, too, has lived through a traumatic event that haunts him daily. His description of the sadness could have been written by myself or any other survivor of 9/11. Or any trauma.

With minimal editing, it was easy to make the author’s description of “The Great Sadness” to match that sadness of my own.

“Little distractions are a welcome although brief respite from the haunting presence of my constant companion: The Great Sadness, as I refer to it. Shortly after 9/11, The Great Sadness had draped itself around my shoulders like some invisible but almost tangibly heavy quilt. The weight of its presence dulled my eyes and stooped my shoulders. Even my efforts to shake it off are exhausting, as if my arms are sewn into its bleak folds of despair and I have somehow become part of it. I eat, work, love, dream and play in this garment of heaviness, weighed down as if I am wearing a leaden bathrobe—trudging daily through the murky despondency that sucks the color out of everything.

At times, I can feel The Great Sadness slowly tightening around my chest and heart like the crushing coils of a constrictor, squeezing liquid from my eyes until I think there no longer remains a reservoir. Other times I will dream that my feet are stuck in cloying mud, as I catch glimpses of people leaping from the towers ahead of me. Although I frantically try to scream warnings for them to stop, no sound emerges and I am always too late and too impotent to save any of them. I sit bolt upright in bed, sweat dripping from my tortured body, while waves of nausea and guilt and regret roll over me like some surreal tidal flood.”

There is a commercial for one of the many antidepressants on the market and it shows a variety of people with depression in various social situations. Each person is holding, in one hand, a stick with a piece of round cardboard on the top, and on the front piece of this cardboard are two dots for eyes and a smile. The “smiley face.” They hold it up in front of them so that is what other people see; completely unaware of what is behind that mask. There are times I feel as if I’m holding my own stick with a fake smile when around people.

I know this all paints a rather bleak picture of life, but I’m here to write about my truth and the truth of other survivors. When you’ve witnessed or lived through, something as devastatingly gruesome as what took place on 9/11, there is a part of your spirit that is permanently damaged.

But people have been just as traumatized from tragedies other than 9/11. And they probably live with their own “Great Sadness.” I write this for them as well. And for those fortunate enough to have yet to experience tragedy or trauma, try to remember that you never know what might be behind a person’s smile. We all have our stories. And for some, our stories contain memories we wish we could forget.

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