Quote Unquote: Building Resiliency

Given the times, Dr. Daryl Van Tongeren’s presentation “Building Resiliency Amid Uncertainty” was a gift.

Van Tongeren, who is an associate professor of psychology, delivered the talk via Zoom on Thursday, Oct. 15, during “One Big Virtual Weekend,” the college’s combined Homecoming and Family Weekend. The weekend’s format, adopted to help assure participants’ safety during the global COVID-19 pandemic, evinced the topic’s relevance.

“The big idea for building resilience in the midst of uncertainty is that cultivating meaning is the key to flourishing in all seasons of life, including when we are suffering,” he said. “You’re going to have better mental health. It’s been linked to better physical health. It’s been linked to perceived growth.”

Van Tongeren’s research focuses on the social motivation for meaning and its relation to virtues and morality. He and his wife, Sara, who is a mental health therapist, are co-authors of the book Courage to Suffer: A New Clinical Framework for Life’s Greatest Crises, which was published in March.

“So why does suffering pose a problem? Well, each of us has a worldview,” he said. “We have expectations about the way the world operates, about our place in the world and how we can plan for the future.”

Those worldviews, he said, help people cope with four primary existential concerns: groundlessness, or the idea that the world is outside of one’s control; fear of isolation; self-identity; and death.

The big idea for building resilience in the midst of uncertainty is that cultivating meaning is the key to flourishing in all seasons of life, including when we are suffering.

“Suffering can peel back all of those layers and reveals the small cracks in our worldview,” he said. “You start questioning, ‘Well, if I was wrong about this, might I be wrong about other things as well?’ And then we start wondering if we don’t have some of the answers we felt we had to some of these big questions in life.”

To nurture meaning during such times, Van Tongeren suggested engaging one’s head, heart and hands.

“Think about transcendent practices,” he said. “What are ways that you can engage your religious or spiritual values, and your religious or spiritual traditions, that will help you move past yourself? That will help connect you with something bigger than yourself to a sense of meaning.”

“The second is the heart,” Van Tongeren continued. “Can you invest in relationships with loved ones? One of the bedrocks of meaning is relationships. And so to the degree that you can connect with others, you can invest in those relationships. Those are going to provide you with a deep sense of meaning, even amidst the uncertainty of COVID.”

“And then think about your hands,” he said. “Is there something that you can do to act virtuously, and pro-socially, someplace in some way that you can give back to other people in the midst of this uncertain and tragic time?”

As an additional strategy for building resilience, Van Tongeren recommended coming to terms with the notion of uncertainty itself.

“View these existential threats and uncertainty in general as facts, not fears,” he said. “The sooner we can realize that these are just some of the natural givens of life, the more we can befriend them, the more we can engage them — and the more we can engage them with openness and growth rather than insecurity and defensiveness.”

He also recommended developing a worldview that is both solid and flexible. “I like to think about it as if you’re building a house,” he said. “Think about just the framework, just the most important pillars. Are there a few things that are relatively unmovable that you can rest on? But leaving a lot of room for flexibility and uncertainty.”