Why Suffering? Conference attracts top academics to tackle humanity's oldest question

At some point in everyone's life, disappointment, illness and tragedy will eventually occur, but researchers say there are ways to cope without breaking down. Studies show that for some people, these negative circumstances can actually improve health, happiness and work performance. This summer, Langley professors organized a symposium that drew North America's top intellectuals in science, faith, psychology and health to Vancouver to speak at “The Gift of Suffering: Spiritual Transformation, Science and Medicine Conference.”

Organized in part by Trinity Western University professors, the symposium attracted over 250 people. The goal of the public lecture was to provide a positive, holistic and integrative perspective to human suffering.

“The speakers addressed some of the most persistent questions for humanity,” says Paul Wong, PhD, symposium organizer, lecturer and Research Director in the Counseling Psychology Program at TWU. Wong explained that some attendees questioned whether any good could come out of suffering, pointing out that it may be offensive to the victims that some benefits might result from their tragedies.

But Wong found just the opposite to be true. “Based on my research on tragic optimism and post-traumatic stress, the only effective way for victims to cope with extreme suffering, is to transform its meaning in order to experience spiritual growth and gain strength in their character. It's true that what cannot kill us will make us stronger.”

Another local speaker, Dr. Mark Tyndall of St. Paul's Hospital and UBC's Medical School, also shared from his experiences, focusing on the suffering of AIDS patients in East Vancouver and in Africa. He pointed out that having empathy, compassion and a non-judgmental attitude is the only way physicians can help reduce and transform suffering.

And probably the most prominent conference speaker was George Ellis, PhD, of the University of Cape Town, winner of the 2004 Templeton Prize in religion. The award—a $1.4 million US prize—is the world's largest monetary award in academia, and is comparable in prestige to the Nobel Prize. Ellis spoke on the joy of suffering.

The symposium was made possible because of a $33,000 grant funded by the Sir John Templeton Foundation. “It's unusual to draw so many intellectuals from diverse fields—such as medicine, theology and psychology—and have them teach on the same topic at the same time,” says Wong . “But we're seeing a shift in the culture's view of medicine to a more holistic approach to healing and health. The grant and the fact that the two major conferences intersected at the same time, made this symposium feasible.”

The conferences Wong refers to were the International Network on Personal Meaning (INPM), in Vancouver, and the Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation (CSCA) at Trinity Western University, all of which took place at the end of July.

Additional speakers included: Trinity Western University's Phil Zylla, DTh, Principal of ACTS Seminaries, who lectured on God and the Experience of Suffering: Toward a Theology of Suffering; Harold Koenig, MD (Duke University Medical School); Malcolm Jeeves, PhD (University of St. Andrews); Richard Tedeschi, PhD (University of North Carolina); Warren Brown, PhD (Fuller Theological Seminary); David Cechetto, PhD (University of Western Ontario; Nancy Reeves, PhD (Psychologist & Author); and Solomon Katz, PhD (University of Pennsylvania).

The symposium was sponsored jointly by: the International Network on Personal Meaning and the Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation.

Last Updated: 2015-07-20
Author: Keela Keeping