Finding Meaning in the Storms

Daryl Van Tongeren, Ph.D. | Associate Professor of Psychology

“Why did this have to happen to me?
Where is God?
How could God let this occur?
What am I going to do?
Who am I going to be?”

Those massive life questions — uneasy, uncomfortable, overwhelming — are smack dab at the heart of Dr. Daryl Van Tongeren’s prolific research and writing. The scholar of experimental social psychology does not shy away from queries often deemed too unwieldy to ask and too hard to answer. He has embraced them for close to a decade in order to help others make sense of their lives in lemons-into-lemonade kinds of ways, publishing over 130 articles in scholarly journals on the topic of finding meaning in the midst of suffering.

Now a forthcoming book by Van Tongeren and his wife, Sara, addresses just that. Intended as a resource for clinical psychologists and counselors who work with individuals experiencing chronic, persistent distress, The Courage to Suffer: A New Clinical Framework for Life’s Greatest Crises distills Daryl’s research findings with Sara’s experience as a psychotherapist. Blending existential psychology and positive psychology, their book provides professionals with objective data and informed methodology to move people through prolonged pain caused by experiences such as terminal illness, isolation, loss of control or identity, or a loved one’s death. Templeton Press will publish the book this year as part of a series on health and spirituality.

“Our goal is to give clinicians the tools they need to get their clients to face their different causes of suffering not as fears, but as facts,” says Van Tongeren. “If people can get away from viewing some of these existential realities as threats, and instead engage them as truths, then they can live more authentic and intentional lives.”

The final section of the book suggests ways to help people achieve what Van Tongeren calls “existential resilience.” Simply put, that means not seeing suffering and flourishing as diametrically opposed to each other — but rather as a “both-and” necessity. “We really try to show that you can flourish even in seasons of suffering,” Van Tongeren says. “You can cultivate meaning, you can have rich relationships and you can find strength and resilience even in really tough periods of life. Helping people focus on that can help them live richly and fully in all seasons of life.” The book also makes the case that in the midst of life’s hardships, faith can help make sense of suffering, since adversity is an oft-mentioned and key theme in many religions.

Working with his wife on the project was a unique opportunity and pleasure, Van Tongeren recounts. “Though I write more than Sara does, she knows how to communicate in more accessible language than I do,” he says. “I provided the research, and she really breathed life into the words.”

Given Van Tongeren’s research passion, perhaps it’s not surprising that his professional focus grew out of a personal tragedy. When he was 28, his 34-year-old brother died, leaving behind a wife and three pre-school children, and what Daryl Van Tongeren was studying in the abstract in graduate school at that time became vividly important in practical terms.

“I really wrestled with where God was in that, because it just did not seem consistent with the way that I had viewed God growing up,” admits Van Tongeren. “I think that the biggest thing I gave up was expecting that everything in life would just make sense. I let go of that and said, I can believe in a God that I can’t always explain. I don’t always have to be able to figure out how God works. And I can still hold beliefs that God is good and loving. It made my faith and understanding of life deeper, more resilient, more flexible.”

Van Tongeren, who received the Association of Psychological Science’s Rising Star Award in 2017, had several projects in the works in 2018. In addition to completing the book, he wrapped up a three-year study on how survivors find meaning after natural disasters strike and how those events affect their views about and relationship with God. He engaged Hope student researchers in that project, which included a dozen field studies following hurricanes Harvey and Irma, plus a dozen related lab studies. The project was funded by a $1.8 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation and also involved colleagues at Wheaton College, Georgia State University and the University of North Texas.

And their findings? “The people who were the most resilient — the ones who really did the best in terms of not being so negatively affected by disasters — were people who were high in what’s called ‘intrinsic religiousness,’” Van Tongeren says. “Religion is a central part of their identity; they don’t just have faith for social reasons. They hold their beliefs because they just believe them to be true, and their religion permeates every aspect of their life. Those are the folks who are really doing the best. But we need to know more about why. Why are those folks so resilient? Why are those the ones faring so well?”

Van Tongeren has begun another Templeton-funded project, this time exploring what happens when people stop identifying as religious. It is all part of his quest to help others know that there is meaning in the storms.

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