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The Courage to Suffer: A New Clinical Framework for Life’s Greatest Crises

Daryl R. Van Tongeren and Sara A. Showalter Van Tongeren
Published by Templeton Press in 2020

One of the hard realities I regularly encounter in my work as a pastor is that of suffering. Sit with someone long enough, listen to their story with sufficient care and attention, and suffering will reveal itself. It’s all too pervasive: everyone suffers—if not currently, either recently or soon. 

2020 will long be remembered as a year of suffering. The pandemic has brought our collective suffering to the fore in an inescapable, tragic way. Each of us has been touched. When the Apostle Paul tells us that all creation groans, we don’t have to wonder what he means. We hear the groans; we contribute to the cacophonous chorus. 

Into this context, Daryl and Sara Van Tongeren’s The Courage to Suffer comes as a timely gift. Written primarily for clinicians and counselors, its relevance extends far beyond the field of the professional therapist. It will aid anyone desiring to be a helpful presence in the lives of those who are suffering. It will also assist those who are themselves suffering, and who long to flourish even in the midst of their suffering. 

Flourishing amidst suffering might, at first, sound like an odd notion. Surely flourishing is instead to be found on the other side of suffering, not right smack dab in the middle of it. No, the Van Tongerens insist, suffering and flourishing are not mutually exclusive options. Rather than viewing suffering as a problem to be avoided or fixed, the authors’ approach embraces it as an inevitable aspect of our lives to be engaged. Expertly applying insights arising at the intersection of positive and existential psychology, they chart a way through suffering that focuses on finding and creating meaning—building a life of coherence, significance and purpose. Cultivating meaning in the midst of suffering develops personal, existential resilience, and opens the way to a flourishing life. 

The book’s opening chapters provide an overview of this framework, supply guiding principles for the journey ahead, and lay the groundwork for grappling with suffering from an existential perspective. The authors identify groundlessness, isolation, identity, and death as four central concerns that “underlie peoples’ mental health struggles (because they undermine feelings of meaning).” These existential themes lead to questions that are woven throughout the book’s treatment: does my life make sense? Do I matter? Does my life have a purpose? Suffering can provoke each of these questions in unsettling, destabilizing ways. 

The Van Tongerens organize the central chapters of the book along an evocative metaphor: suffering comes to us as inevitably as the night follows the day. Flourishing is to be found, not by chasing the sinking sun, but by courageously facing the coming darkness and journeying through it. The book’s five central chapters move us from sunset (the initial sting of suffering), through dusk (when we are invited to work toward accepting our suffering), to midnight (a time of actively questioning, testing, and deconstructing convictions and beliefs), toward the dawn (where one begins to rebuild beliefs that bolster meaningful and resilient living), and finally into daylight (here, we are invited to live authentically in light of our transformational work through the darkness). 

There’s reason to trust the Van Tongerens as guides through the darkness. Professionally they bring a wealth of knowledge and understanding to the journey, both theoretical and practical. Their framework is informed by psychological research and enhanced by case examples from the counseling setting. The book is filled with specific, actionable guidance that one might apply to one’s own situation or put into practice when walking with another through their suffering. Moreover, none of this is unfamiliar territory to the Van Tongerens personally. They write from their own transformational experiences of journeying through sorrow and loss. They know these stages of darkness and light well, because they’ve spent time in each of them, and they’ve found ways to flourish in the midst of it all. 

Ultimately, the authors suggest, living meaningful, resilient lives in the face of suffering involves us in a life for others. The final chapter gives attention to themes of positive psychology, in particular: religion, relationships, and virtue, which they helpfully coordinate with the images of head, heart, and hands. The proof of a flourishing life is in the living of it, and this chapter helps us consider how we might cultivate meaning in and across each of these areas. 

The Courage to Suffer deserves a place on every therapist’s shelves, in every pastor’s library, and in the hands of every person concerned with cultivating meaning and finding flourishing in the darkness. Here is a book that instills what its title upholds. 

Kevin Germer

Kevin Germer is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church, in Richmond, VA.