Book Review: The Road Less Traveled

One of the best books I’ve read on spirituality and psychology. Scott Peck conveys some simple, powerful truths about love, responsibility and the key behaviors that make for a successful life lived in harmony with the world. This should be mandatory reading for people in their teens as they start to gain awareness of some of the factors that have made them who they are.

Some choice excerpts below.

Enjoy!

Ramen-san

 


 

On suffering:

Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. * *The first of the “Four Noble Truths” which Buddha taught was “Life is suffering.” It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult—once we truly understand and accept it—then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.

On meeting and solving problems:

Yet it is in this whole process of meeting and solving problems that life has its meaning. Problems are the cutting edge that distinguishes between success and failure. Problems call forth our courage and our wisdom; indeed, they create our courage and our wisdom. It is only because of problems that we grow mentally and spiritually. When we desire to encourage the growth of the human spirit, we challenge and encourage the human capacity to solve problems, just as in school we deliberately set problems for our children to solve. It is through the pain of confronting and resolving problems that we learn. As Benjamin Franklin said, “Those things that hurt, instruct.” It is for this reason that wise people learn not to dread but actually to welcome problems and actually to welcome the pain of problems.

Therefore let us inculcate in ourselves and in our children the means of achieving mental and spiritual health. By this I mean let us teach ourselves and our children the necessity for suffering and the value thereof, the need to face problems directly and to experience the pain involved. I have stated that discipline is the basic set of tools we require to solve life’s problems. It will become clear that these tools are techniques of suffering, means by which we experience the pain of problems in such a way as to work them through and solve them successfully, learning and growing in the process. When we teach ourselves and our children discipline, we are teaching them and ourselves how to suffer and also how to grow.

On discipline:

What are these tools, these techniques of suffering, these means of experiencing the pain of problems constructively that I call discipline? There are four: delaying of gratification, acceptance of responsibility, dedication to truth, and balancing.

Delaying gratification is a process of scheduling the pain and pleasure of life in such a way as to enhance the pleasure by meeting and experiencing the pain first and getting it over with. It is the only decent way to live.

In summary, for children to develop the capacity to delay gratification, it is necessary for them to have self-disciplined role models, a sense of self-worth, and a degree of trust in the safety of their existence. These “possessions” are ideally acquired through the self-discipline and consistent, genuine caring of their parents; they are the most precious gifts of themselves that mothers and fathers can bequeath. When these gifts have not been proffered by one’s parents, it is possible to acquire them from other sources, but in that case the process of their acquisition is invariably an uphill struggle, often of lifelong duration and often unsuccessful.

Discipline has been defined as a system of techniques of dealing constructively with the pain of problem-solving—instead of avoiding that pain—in such a way that all of life’s problems can be solved. Four basic techniques have been distinguished and elaborated: delaying gratification, assumption of responsibility, dedication to the truth or reality, and balancing. Discipline is a system of techniques, because these techniques are very much interrelated. In a single act one may utilize two, three or even all of the techniques at the same time and in such a way that they may be distinguishable from each other. The strength, energy and willingness to use these techniques are provided by love, as will be elaborated in the next section.

 

Adolescents frequently complain that they are disciplined not out of genuine concern but because of parental fear that they will give their parents a bad image. “My parents are continually after me to cut my hair,” adolescent boys used to say a few years ago. “They can’t explain why long hair is bad for me. They just don’t want other people to see they’ve got long-haired kids. They don’t really give a shit about me. All they are really caring about is their own image.” Such adolescent resentment is usually justified. Their parents generally do in fact fail to appreciate the unique individuality of their children, and instead regard their children as extensions of themselves, in much the same way as their fine clothes and their neatly manicured lawns and their polished cars are extensions of themselves which represent their status to the world.

On love:

I define love thus: The will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.

I therefore conclude that the desire to love is not itself love. Love is as love does. Love is an act of will—namely, both an intention and an action.

Ultimately love is everything. The mystery of love will be examined in later portions of this work. Yet, for the sake of coherency, it may be helpful to make a brief but limited mention of it and its relationship to discipline at this point. When we love something it is of value to us, and when something is of value to us we spend time with it, time enjoying it and time taking care of it. Observe a teenager. In love with his car and note the time he will spend admiring it, polishing it, repairing it, tuning it. Or an older person with a beloved rose garden, and the time spent pruning and mulching and fertilizing and studying it. So it is when we love children; we spend time admiring them and caring for them. We give them our time.

The time and the quality of the time that their parents devote to them indicate to children the degree to which they are valued by their parents. Some basically unloving parents, in an attempt to cover up their lack of caring, make frequent professions of love to their children, repetitively and mechanically telling them how much they are valued, but not devoting significant time of high quality to them. Their children are never totally deceived by such hollow words. Consciously they may cling to them, wanting to believe that they are loved, but unconsciously they know that their parents’ words do not match up with their deeds.

Fourth, the act of extending one’s limits implies effort. One extends one’s limits only by exceeding them, and exceeding limits requires effort. When we love someone our love becomes demonstrable or real only through our exertion through the fact that for that someone (or for ourself) we take an extra step or walk an extra mile. Love is not effortless. To the contrary, love is effortful.

However; by stating that it is when a couple falls out of love they may begin to really love I am also implying that real love does not have its roots in a feeling of love. To the contrary, real love often occurs in a context in which the feeling of love is lacking, when we act lovingly despite the fact that we don’t feel loving.

“If being loved is your goal, you will fail to achieve it. The only way to be assured of being loved is to be a person worthy of love, and you cannot be a person worthy of love when your primary goal in life is to passively be loved.”

Parents who say to their children, “You should be grateful for all that we have done for you” are invariably parents who are lacking in love to a significant degree. Anyone who genuinely loves knows the pleasure of loving. When we genuinely love we do so because we want to love. We have children because we want to have children, and if we are loving parents, it is because we want to be loving parents. It is true that love involves a change in the self, but this is an extension of the self rather than a sacrifice of the self: As will be discussed again later, genuine love is a self-replenishing activity. Indeed, it is even more; it enlarges rather than diminishes the self; it fills the self rather than depleting it. In a real sense love is as selfish as nonlove. Here again there is a paradox in that love is both selfish and unselfish at the same time. It is not selfishness or unselfishness that distinguishes love from nonlove; it is the aim of the action. In the case of genuine love the aim is always spiritual growth. In the case of nonlove the aim is always something else.

My feelings of love may be unbounded, but my capacity to be loving is limited. I therefore must choose the person on whom to focus my capacity to love, toward whom to direct my will to love. True love is not a feeling by which we are overwhelmed. It is a committed, thoughtful decision.

It is clear that there may be a self-serving quality in this tendency to confuse love with the feeling of love; it is easy and not at all unpleasant to find evidence of love in one’s feelings. It may be difficult and painful to search for evidence of love in one’s actions. But because true love is an act of will that often transcends ephemeral feelings of love or cathexis, it is correct to say, “Love is as love does.” Love and nonlove, as good and evil, are objective and not purely subjective phenomena.

But what. is this force that pushes us as individuals and as a whole species to grow against the natural resistance of our own lethargy? We have already labeled it. It is love. Love was defined as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing. one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” When we grow, it is because we are working at it, and we are working at it because we love ourselves. It is through love that we elevate ourselves. And it is through our love for others that we assist others to elevate themselves. Love, the extension of the self, is the very act of evolution. It is evolution in progress. The evolutionary force, present in all of life, manifests itself in mankind as human love. Among humanity love is the miraculous force that defies the natural law of entropy.

In examining discipline we were considering the laziness of attempting to avoid necessary suffering, or taking the easy way out. In examining love we were also examining the fact that nonlove is the unwillingness to extend one’s self. Laziness is love’s opposite. Spiritual growth is effortful, as we have been reminded again and again. We are now at a position from which we can examine the nature of laziness in perspective and realize that laziness is the force of entropy as it manifests itself in the lives of all of us.

Neuroses and character disorders:

Most people who come to see a psychiatrist are suffering from what is called either a neurosis or a character disorder. Put most simply, these two conditions are disorders of responsibility, and as such they are opposite styles of relating to the world and its problems. The neurotic assumes too much responsibility; the person with a character disorder, not enough. When neurotics are in conflict with the world they automatically assume that they are at fault. When those with character disorders are in conflict with the world they automatically assume that the world is at fault.

It is not simply in their role as parents that character-disordered individuals are ineffective and destructive; these same character traits usually extend to their marriages, their friendships and their business dealings—to any area of their existence in which they fail to assume responsibility for its quality. This is inevitable since, as has been said, no problem can be solved until an individual assumes the responsibility for solving it. When character-disordered individuals blame someone else—a spouse, a child, a friend, a parent, an employer—or something else—bad influences, the schools, the government, racism, sexism, society, the “system”—for their problems, these problems persist. Nothing has been accomplished. By casting away their responsibility they may feel comfortable with themselves, but they have ceased to solve the problems of living, have ceased to grow spiritually, and have become dead weight for society. They have cast their ‘ pain onto society. The saying of the sixties (attributed to Eldridge Cleaver) speaks to all of us for all time: “If you are not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem.”

On freedom and responsibility:

In attempting to avoid the pain of responsibility, millions and even billions daily attempt to escape from freedom.

One of the roots of this “sense of impotence” in the majority of patients is some desire to partially or totally escape the pain of freedom, and, therefore, some failure, partial or total, to accept responsibility for their problems and their lives. They feel impotent because they have, in fact, given their power away. Sooner or later, if they are to be healed, they must learn that the entirety of one’s adult life is a series of personal choices, decisions. If they can accept this totally, then they become free people. To the extent that they do not accept this they will forever feel themselves victims.

On speaking truth:

So the expression of opinions, feelings, ideas and even knowledge must be suppressed from time to time in these and many other circumstances in the course of human affairs. What rules, then, can one follow if one is dedicated to the truth? First, never speak falsehood. Second, bear in mind that the act of withholding the truth is always potentially a lie, and that in each instance in which the truth is withheld a significant moral decision is required. Third, the decision to withhold the truth should never be based on personal needs, such as a need for power, a need to be liked or a need to protect one’s map from challenge. Fourth, and conversely, the decision to withhold the truth must always be based entirely upon the needs of the person or people from whom the truth is being withheld. Fifth, the assessment of another’s needs is an act of responsibility which is so complex that it can only be executed wisely when one operates with genuine love for the other. Sixth, the primary factor in the assessment of another’s needs is the assessment of that person’s capacity to utilize the truth for his or her own spiritual growth. Finally, in assessing the capacity of another to utilize the truth for personal spiritual growth, it should be borne in mind that our tendency is generally to underestimate rather than overestimate this capacity.

Finally, they are totally free to be. They are not burdened by any need to hide. They do not have to slink around in the shadows. They do not have to construct new lies to hide old ones. They need waste no effort covering tracks or maintaining disguises. And ultimately they find that the energy required for the self-discipline of honesty is far less than the energy required for secretiveness. The more honest one is, the easier it is to continue being honest, just as the more lies one has told, the more necessary it is to lie again. By their openness, people dedicated to the truth live in the open, and through the exercise of their courage to live in the open, they become free from fear.

On ego:

The most literal of mystics believe that our common perception of the universe as containing multitudes of discrete objects—stars, planets, trees, birds; houses, ourselves—all separated from one another by boundaries is a misperception, an illusion. To this consensual misperception, this world of illusion that most of us mistakenly believe to be real, Hindus and Buddhists apply the word “Maya.” They and other mystics hold that true reality can be known only by experiencing the oneness through a giving up of ego boundaries. It is impossible to really see the unity of the universe as long as one continues to see oneself as a discrete object, separate and distinguishable from the rest of the universe in any way, shape or form. Hindus and Buddhists frequently hold, therefore, that the infant before the development of ego boundaries knows reality, while adults do not. Some even suggest that the path toward enlightenment or knowledge of the oneness of reality requires that we regress or make ourselves like infants.

There are no quick and easy shortcuts. Ego boundaries must be hardened before they can be softened. An identity must be established before it can be transcended. One must find one’s self before one can lose it. The temporary release from ego boundaries associated with falling in love, sexual intercourse or the use of certain psychoactive drugs may provide us with a glimpse of Nirvana, but not with Nirvana itself. It is a thesis of this book that Nirvana or lasting enlightenment or true spiritual growth can be achieved only through the persistent exercise of real love.

On relationships:

Through such behavior, passive dependent marriages may be made lasting and secure, but they cannot be considered either healthy or genuinely loving, because the security is purchased at the price of freedom and the relationship serves to retard or destroy the growth of the individual partners. Again and again we tell our couples that “a good marriage can exist only between two strong and independent people.”

I have a colleague who often tells people, ‘“Look, allowing yourself to be dependent on another person is the worst possible thing you can do to yourself. You would be better off being dependent on heroin. As long as you have a supply of it, heroin will never let you down; if it’s there, it will always make you happy. But if you expect another person to make you happy, you’ll be endlessly disappointed.”

No marriage can be judged truly successful unless husband and wife are each other’s best critics. The same holds true for friendship. There is a traditional concept that friendship should be a conflict-free relationship, a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” arrangement, relying solely on a mutual exchange of favors and compliments as prescribed by good manners. Such relationships are superficial and intimacy-avoiding and do not deserve the name of friendship which is so commonly applied to them. Fortunately, there are signs that our concept of friendship is beginning to deepen. Mutual loving confrontation is a significant part of all successful and meaningful human relationships. Without it the relationship is either unsuccessful or shallow.

On evil:

Evil people hate the light because it reveals themselves to themselves. They hate goodness because it reveals their badness; they hate love because it reveals their laziness. They will destroy the light, the goodness, the love in order to avoid the pain of such self-awareness.

I define evil, then, as the exercise of political power—that is, the imposition of one’s will upon others by overt or covert coercion—in order to avoid extending one’s self for the purpose of nurturing spiritual growth. Ordinary laziness is nonlove; evil is antilove.

Leave a Reply