Never in his wildest imagination could Dr. Daryl Van Tongeren, associate professor of psychology, have guessed that the release of his first book co-written with his wife, Sara, would come at time when their work would be pertinent to millions of people all at once.
Never could he have known that The Courage to Suffer, a project started three years ago and released by Templeton Press in early March, would be a necessary and widespread call to action for a world beleaguered by the COVID-19 crisis.
Yet, here we are, staying at home, worried for loved ones, praying for miracles, grieving loss, keeping hope.
And here is the Van Tongerens’ book to guide us through daunting emotions unraveled by a persistent reality. Though written mainly for clinicians — its subtitle is A New Clinical Framework for Life’s Greatest Crises — the 184-page book’s strategies will be appreciated by laypeople going through chronic suffering, Van Tongeren says.
“When we suffer, we realize the finite nature of our humanity and that we don’t have control over things like the coronavirus,” says Van Tongeren. “But suffering is an inherent part of life and these realities are not things for us to be afraid of. They’re just things for us to come to terms with.”
Maybe easier said than done? Van Tongeren offers these words of encouragement for the here and now:
“First, we can start with acceptance. It begins with seeing this pandemic for what it really is and acknowledging that it uncovers some deep fears we have, such as our own mortality, our lack of control, and the uncertainty of life.
“Second, we can ask ourselves what our core fear is, because this often is tied to love. That is, we may fear losing those we care about because we love them. Once we realize that fear can point toward love, we don’t have to be afraid of fear. We can use this as information to help us identify those things we love.
“Third, we can engage with vulnerable compassion. We can turn toward others who are suffering with compassion, knowing that they, like us, are vulnerable and deserve empathy, love, and kindness. This will help us realize that some of these fears can move us into more authentic living.”
As for The Courage to Suffer, the Van Tongerens offers more wisdom to work through suffering, using a storytelling arc of their own personal suffering as they integrate an existential and positive psychology approach. Daryl, as a social psychologist, and Sara, as a licensed clinical social worker, walk readers through five different stages of darkness and light, describing how we first deal with the sting of suffering and how we can then push forward into the painful darkness and come through the other side toward authentic living that honors the pain of our suffering.
“These virtues do not mean that we ignore the reality of the pain and loss that many are facing. Rather, we can choose to respond virtuously knowing full well the weight of this pandemic.”
“Many people question some of their fundamental beliefs in suffering. That’s normal,” Van Tongeren says, “but they can begin rebuilding the way that they need to see the world. Then they can choose to live with authenticity moving forward.”
Van Tongeren also says there are strengths and virtues that help us live a flourishing life in the face of suffering, especially during the intense time of COVID-19. They just might be the emotional, social, and relational panacea for the crisis we face now.
“First, we can be grateful: for those of us who are still healthy, for our relationships, for small things that bring us joy and meaning,” he says. “Second, we can be humble: we can listen to the orders to stay indoors for the benefit of others, even if we feel less vulnerable. Third, we can be courageous: to face the uncertainty of the future with hope and resolve, knowing that together, we will get through this.
“And these virtues do not mean that we ignore the reality of the pain and loss that many are facing. Rather, we can choose to respond virtuously knowing full well the weight of this pandemic.”