As a therapist, I often assign reading tasks between sessions for clients to keep focus. These can be anything from a journal to reading a book and commenting on lessons learned. One of my more popular choices is a classic from Scott Peck which I think looks at life from a very realistic viewpoint…something that is often needed by clients. I first read the book on a twelve-hour flight and it taught me that I had to make certain changes in my life at that time, which I consequently did, to good effect. The book is magnificent and even more so when you consider the somewhat flawed life lived by the author. This is the self-help book that is read by people who don’t read self-help books.
It contains none of the alluring promises of boundless joy and happiness that are the feature of personal development writing, yet has still been a massive bestseller. Famously beginning with the words, ‘Life is difficult’, it covers such gloomy topics as the myth of romantic love, evil, mental illness, and the author’s psychological and spiritual crises.Perhaps because of its lack of rosiness, it is easy to give this book our confidence. The Road Less Traveled is inspirational, but in an old-fashioned way, putting self-discipline at the top of list of values for a good life. If you believe there are no easy ways to enlightenment, and that things like commitment and responsibility are the seeds of fulfilment, then you are belong in Dr Peck’s territory. Peck was a conventionally trained psychotherapist, but has been influential in the movement to have psychology recognise the stages of spiritual growth. He sees the great feature of our times as being the reconciliation of the scientific and the spiritual world views. The Road Less Traveled was his attempt to further bridge the gap, and it has clearly been successful. The book is welcomed by anyone who has found themselves torn between the science of psychology and the spiritual search.
Self-control is the essence of Peck’s brand of self-help. He says: ‘Without discipline we can solve nothing. With only some discipline we can solve only some problems. With total discipline we can solve all problems.’ A person who has the ability to delay gratification has the key to psychological maturity, whereas impulsiveness is a mental habit that, in denying opportunities to experience pain, creates neuroses. Most large problems we have are the result of not facing up to earlier, smaller problems, of failing to be ‘dedicated to the truth’. The great mistake most people make is believing that problems will go away of their own accord.
This lack of responsibility will damage us in other ways. Our culture puts freedom on a pedestal, yet Peck recalls Eric Fromm’s book Escape From Freedom, which looked at people’s natural willingness to embrace political authoritarianism. It is referenced to support Peck’s belief that, when it comes down to it, we shy from real freedom and responsibility.
The road and its rewards
The Road Less Traveled is rich with the stories of real people. Some of the vignettes demonstrate the transformation of a life, but in other cases people just refuse to change, or in the end can’t be bothered. Ring true? It is in these less extreme cases that we are more likely to see our own quiet turning away from a bolder, richer life. Rather than the horror of a mental illness, Peck says, most of us have to deal with the straightforward anguish of missed opportunities.
Yet why is this so, when the rewards are so great? The road less traveled might be the spiritual path, but it is also a lot rockier and dimly lit next to the regular highway of life, which other people seem happy enough on. But Peck says that to ask this question of ‘Why bother?’, we must know nothing of joy. The rewards of spiritual life are enormous: peace of mind and freedom from real worry that most people never imagine is possible. Burdens are always ready to be lifted, since they are no longer solely ours.
But deepened spirituality also brings responsibility; this is inevitable as we move from spiritual childhood to adulthood. Peck remembers St Augustine, who said: ‘If you are loving and diligent, you may do whatever you want.’ Just as our previous spiritual timidity and laziness resulted (as we can now see) in a very limited existence, so discipline opens the door to limitlessness in our experience of life. Only the more enlightened can be amused by the fact that others think they must lead a boring and restrained life; the walls that look stark from without may simply be shielding us from the glow of rapture within.
Love is a decision
What is the fuel on the road less traveled? Love, of course, and Peck is at his best discussing this thing that cannot be adequately defined. We tend to think of love as effortless, the free fall of ‘falling in love’. While it may be mysterious, love is also effortful; love is a decision: ‘…the desire to love is not itself love. Love is as love does.’
The ecstatic state of being in love is in part a regression to infancy, a time when we felt our mother and ourselves to be one; we are back in communion with the world, and anything seems possible. Yet just as the baby comes to realise he or she is an individual, so the lover eventually returns to his or her self. At this point, Peck says, the work of ‘real’ love begins. Anyone can fall in love, but not everyone can decide to love. We may never control love’s onset, but we may – with discipline – remain in charge of our response.
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