New Resource Offers a Framework for Suffering
An interview with Daryl and Sara Van Tongeren about courage in suffering.
Posted Mar 06, 2020
Each person's suffering is unique, but we all experience fear when it comes to dealing with our pain. Moving into pain and growing out of suffering can be daunting. But existential resilience can be built along the way so we're ready when difficult times come again.
Daryl R. Van Tongeren, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. Daryl is a social psychologist and has published over 150 scholarly articles and chapters on topics such as meaning in life, religion, virtues (including forgiveness and humility), relationships and well-being. He coauthored The Courage to Suffer: A New Clinical Framework for Life’s Greatest Crises with Sara A. Showalter Van Tongeren, LCSW, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states of Michigan and Virginia. Sara has more than 10 years of clinical social work experience in settings such as private practice, foster care, in-patient hospitals and outpatient medical clinics, domestic violence shelters, and behavioral health. Released in March 2020, the book adopts an existential psychology approach to suffering.
JA: Why did you set out to write your book?
DVT & SVT: We experienced significant loss and suffering in our personal lives. We thought that our professional training would offer a helpful answer. Daryl is a professionally-trained social psychologist who studies meaning-making and existential concerns, and Sara is a clinical social worker with expertise in trauma and chronic and terminal illness. We quickly realized that there was a gap in both the literature surrounding suffering and how to help people who are suffering. Our hope is that this book can help people better understand what suffering is and how to help people in the midst of it.
JA: What is the primary takeaway you hope readers will learn from reading your book?
DVT & SVT: We really hope that readers will come to understand that suffering is a natural part of life. And when suffering strikes, it doesn’t mean that life has to stop. People can still find meaning and live full, flourishing lives in the midst of their profound loss and deep pain.
JA: What are some lessons from your book that can help people live more resiliently?
DVT & SVT: We introduce the idea of existential resilience in our book. Suffering often reveals core fears that each person has to face. Most people want to avoid these or numb themselves from the anxiety they bring up. But we think that an honest, more authentic way of dealing with suffering is to address these fears directly. We walk readers through how to engage with the realities of life by developing existential resilience, which will help them not only in their current season of suffering but also prepare them for when suffering inevitably surfaces again.
JA: What are some insights from your book that help readers support a friend or loved one?
DVT & SVT: People usually want to say or do something that will help their friends or loved ones who are suffering. Often, people tend to say or do what makes themselves feel better (e.g., assure their loved one that "everything happens for reason" because that belief gives themselves comfort) rather than engaging with their loved one in ways that names and honors their pain. Readers will better understand the process of suffering, the fears it may elicit in themselves, and how vitally important it is to validate the pain of those who are struggling. The book offers simple ways to be a support such as simply showing up and offering their presence.
JA: What are you currently working on these days?
DVT & SVT: Our focus right now to help spread the word about The Courage to Suffer, which has a March 9, 2020 release date. We’ve scheduled conference talks to share the key themes of the book and encourage clinicians to adopt our framework. Sara continues to see clients, give lectures, and hold workshops; she is working on advocacy initiatives in Holland, Michigan. Daryl continues to conduct research on religion and humility, as well as teach (including classes on what makes a meaningful life and the psychology of religion).
JA: Anything else you would like to share?
DVT & SVT: Although the primary audience for our book is clinicians, we wrote it in such a way to make it accessible and helpful to anyone who is suffering or knows someone who is suffering—which is probably most of us. We believe that every person, whether a therapist or not, will find value in this book and can connect with many of the themes we discuss and gain a greater understanding of themselves.
Daryl R. Van Tongeren, Ph.D., has been supported by numerous grants from the John Templeton Foundation to explore topics including meaning in life, religion and religious de-identification, and humility. His research has won national and international awards. He received a 2016 Rising Star designation from the Association for Psychological Science (APS), and he was named a Fellow of the International Society for Science and Religion (ISSR) and a Fellow of the Midwestern Psychological Association (MPA). Currently, he is an associate editor for The Journal of Positive Psychology and a consulting editor for Psychology of Religion and Spirituality and The Journal of Social Psychology. More information can be found at www.darylvantongeren.com.
Sara A. Showalter Van Tongeren, LCSW, currently works in a private practice in Holland, Mich. where she provides therapy to individuals, couples, families, and children to help them cultivate a sense of meaning and develop narratives of resilience following trauma and unexpected life events. Sara specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Mindfulness, Narrative Therapy, Brainspotting, and Acceptance Commitment Therapy. Follow her professional work on Instagram @theexistentialtherapist.
Van Tongeren, D. R., & Van Tongeren, S. A. S. (2020). The courage to suffer: A new clinical framework for life’s greatest crises. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press.