Morgan Scott Peck’s book “The Road Less Traveled” is a popular self-help book. The book is Peck’s attempt to condense the main insights he gained from his work as a psychiatrist into written form. What makes it compelling is that he conveys psychological insight in a language that is accessible to readers who are not trained in psychology. Some of his observations are articulated in such powerful, crystal-clear language, that it is impossible to not be impressed.
In the first part of the book, Peck gives explanations of basic elements of his understanding of psychology and the human condition:
- Life is suffering
- Life is about solving problems
- We want to avoid problems, because confronting them is painful
- avoiding problems causes neurosis
- to the degree that we avoid problems, we are sick
- the way we approach problems is shaped by the experiences we made in childhood with our parents
Already here is an important insight. Most people believe that there is a sharp line separating the “sane” from the “mentally ill” or even “crazy”, and believe themselves to be safely in the “sane” camp, but this is an illusion. To the degree that we embrace lies and blindness to avoid problems, we are sick, and we all do this, some to a greater, some to a lesser degree. Mental health is a continuous spectrum, ranging from essentially healthy to completely crazy, with various shades of madness in between. Most people are somewhere in the grey area between the extremes. In explaining how we avoid problems and how we face and overcome them, Peck points out that to a certain degree, depression is normal and healthy. As we grow and evolve, we have to let go of our old selves. Giving up old ways of thinking, habits and coping mechanisms is painful, and requires periods of depression during which the loss is mourned. Peck outlines four principles of sanity: disciple, dedication to truth, openness to challenge, and balancing. While these principles seem easy to understand, their application is an endless challenge.
The second part of the book discusses love. Peck speaks about “romantic love”, about the illusion that there is a perfect partner who will make a relationship effortless, and emphasizes instead that love is hard work, that it requires a constant effort to extend oneself for the sake of another person’s growth. The notion that love is about receiving something, that it should make you happy, is widespread, but love is rather about giving something. Extending oneself for someone else is joy.
In the last part of the book, Peck becomes more speculative and moves into the realm of spirituality. He believes that spiritual growth is the reason humans exist, and that our ultimate destiny is to become like God, in the sense that we overcome our flaws and selfish desires until we become pure beings, in harmony with creation. Here, Peck leaves the realm of self-help he covered in the previous chapters, and attempts to provide an all-encompassing framework for the practical advice given before. He sees love as the basis of spiritual growth and our striving towards God, laziness as our inclination to avoid growth (sin), and evil as active resistance and hostility to growth. Peck’s clinical experience led him to believe that there is a benevolent force that furthers growth and acts in mysterious and beneficial ways, a force he calls grace. Whether or not the reader agrees with this worldview, it is an interesting idea and worth thinking about.
Peck himself is a controversial figure. Despite the fact that he continuously emphasizes the importance of discipline and adherence to truth in his books, he himself was not able to conform to these ideals to the degree one would expect from his writing. There is evidence that he had affairs, that he was a less-than-ideal father; his wife and children distanced themselves from him in later years. These personal flaws show up in the book at some places. One should, however, not dismiss the insights in his book because of his personal flaws; it is quite possible to correctly see and articulate truth, and at the same time be deeply flawed oneself. It is more appropriate to see him as a warning and an exhortation to humility, showing that intelligence, education and insight do not make us invulnerable to making mistakes and being deeply flawed, and blind to our flaws.