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Resilience and Spiritual Fortitude

An interview with Dr. Daryl Van Tongeren on fostering spiritual fortitude.

This is the fifth in a series of interviews with expert psychologists on how resilience—one of the major themes of my book, A Walking Disaster: What Surviving Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience—connects to their area of study.

Daryl Van Tongeren, used with permission
Source: Daryl Van Tongeren, used with permission

Today’s interview is on the subject of spiritual fortitude and features Dr. Daryl R. Van Tongeren, who is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Hope College. His research focuses on the social motivation for meaning and its relation to virtues and morality. He was named a 2016 Association for Psychological Science (APS) Rising Star. He has more than 125 scientific publications on meaning in life, religion, and virtues and his work has been supported by numerous external grants. He is currently working on his first book on the subject of meaning and suffering. In the last chapter of A Walking Disaster, I share a finding from a study he led that our team did that draws a distinction between spiritual fortitude and resilience or grit, so I asked him to share more about that distinction.

JA: How do you personally define spiritual fortitude?

DV: Spiritual fortitude (SF) is a confidence that someone has sufficient spiritual resources to face, and grow in the face of, a stressor. SF reflects a spiritual depth and capacity for authentic spiritual engagement in the wake of hardship. SF is likely a multifaceted construct, including not only confidence in one’s resources, but the perceived functionality and suitability of such spiritual resources as they operate in periods of considerable strain. It involves having spiritual endurance (withstanding and persevering in difficult times), spiritual enterprise (maintaining integrity during adversity), and the hope for finding a renewed sense of purpose and meaning following the adversity.

JA: How can spiritual fortitude help us through difficult times?

DV: Spiritual fortitude (SF) can help people hold onto their faith, and use their faith as a deep coping resource, when life is difficult. Moreover, SF may lend itself to character building and development, if people are able to transform their experiences of suffering into something meaningful.

JA: What are some ways we can cultivate spiritual fortitude when facing hardships?

DV: We are not quite sure yet, but some possibilities include (a) committing oneself to a deeper engagement of their spiritual beliefs and practices during adversity, (b) surrounding oneself with a supportive spiritual community, (c) allowing one's spiritual beliefs to be shaped, in part, by the reality of their hardship (i.e., a willingness to revise beliefs that simply don't hold up to reality), and (d) embracing the difficult times in life and allowing this pain to help them do the hard work of growth.

JA: What advice might you give to help a friend or loved one going through a difficult life situation foster spiritual fortitude?

DV: Start with the practical. Sometimes, that just involves being present. Listen well. Ask questions, but be genuinely interested in their experience, not making sure they give you the "right" answer. Support those who doubt and question—doing so may reflect a profound deep well of spiritual belief. Give room for their pain. Don't push them to any sort of "solution" or quick fix.

JA: Can you share about what you’re working on these days related to spiritual fortitude?

DV: We are hoping to see how spiritual fortitude plays a role in the lives of people who are persistently suffering—whose life situations don't have an easy solution or short timeline.

JA: Is there anything else you’d like to share?

DV: To understand spirituality, you must also take a long hard look at suffering—the two are deeply intertwined.

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