Brief Book Review of M. Scott Peck’s “The Road Less Traveled”


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In “The Road Less Traveled,” psychiatrist Morgan Scott Peck (M. Scott Peck) begins the book by turning on its end one of our most cherished and fundamental assumptions about life—that it ought to be easy. The vast majority of we human beings go through life assuming that life should be easy (and fun and never boring), and then whining and/or complaining when it isn’t. We treat pain and difficulty as aberrations that are to be gotten rid of as quickly as possible, because we are convinced that fundamentally life is supposed to be fun, easy, leisurely, comfortable, pleasant. Thus in one way or another, most of us proceed through life rather blindly (unthinkingly) assuming that the path of least resistance is the right path to a good and fulfilling life.

But Peck says that this is absolutely not so. Life is suffering, says Peck, reminding us of what the Buddha said 2500 years ago. It’s not life, but we, who are in the wrong. Life is inherently and unavoidably difficulty. Embracing difficulty—and doing so in a disciplined way—is what actually leads us to the good and meaningful life. Learning how to deal with difficulties squarely and maturely and up front is one of the principle components of “the road less traveled” or the path not taken by most. And then Peck proceeds to start detailing what the path of least resistance and of habitually avoiding difficulties and challenges and tension does to people. And what it does, in short, is that it cripples people emotionally and psychologically and spiritually, if traveled too frequently and too routinely—which is what most of us do.

Peck is very good in his books about highlighting and contrasting the two alternate paths that we as humans are faced with. In a way it’s reminiscent of that teaching cartoon in the magazine “Highlights for Children.” In that magazine, two children, Goofus and Gallant, are faced with identical situations or dilemmas. And Goofus always takes the selfish, rude, unkind, irresponsible way out; and Gallant always exemplifies that classier, more polite and well-mannered and mature way of dealing with a situation.

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In “The Road Less Traveled” Peck similarly contrasts the mentally healthier way of dealing with life and love and difficulties with the mentally less healthy way of trying to avoiding dealing with life difficulties. He intersperses his writings with examples of the costs of choosing (usually by default or out of fear) a life of safety, comfort, avoidance, and contrasts it with those instances where some of his patients have “gotten it” and when they have gone against the grain and chosen differently—chosen instead to take the more difficult route.

Peck spends the first quarter of “The Road Less Traveled” discussing what discipline is and is not, what a discipline approach to life and problem-solving looks like and what an undisciplined approach to life and avoiding problems looks like. One of the crucial concepts he touches on is that of “life-maps.” Throughout life, we are constantly engaged in a process of mapping life and our surroundings. And most of us do so in a very unexamined way, meaning we never really pause to begin examining ourselves and the way we’re drawing our maps and why we’re drawing them in that way. We just live without much thought or self-reflection and make our maps more or less on auto-pilot, instinctively avoiding pain and difficulty and seeking pleasure and comfort and fun. Peck challenges this way of life and challenges his readers to do the same—to begin examining themselves and their maps and to take up the challenge of making their maps of reality as accurate (mentally healthy) as possible.

And then in the next quarter of the book, Peck does just this—he takes the cultural default map (or understanding) of love that most of us have and have bought into and begins examining it bit by bit, discussing what love likely actually is and what love isn’t (love isn’t a feeling, love is deep attentiveness, love is self-extension, love is not laziness, et cetera). And along the way, Peck, shows us what faulty understandings of love and what parental lacks of love have done to some of his patients.

In the remainder of the book, Peck then begins applying the examined life to such topics as personal and spiritual growth, God, grace, serendipity, miracles, organized religion, psychotherapy, the unconscious, et cetera.

Peck wrote two follow-ups to this book.  In the next book in the series—“Further Along the Road Less Traveled”—a book culled from many of the lectures peck gave in the wake of “The Road Less Traveled”—Peck expands on the idea that life is difficult by adding that life is also complex, and that in trying to make life less messy and complicated and complex than it is, we do a great disservice to ourselves and others. He explores some of the errors of the New Age movement—namely the all or nothing / overgeneralizations inherent in many of the grand ideas put forth by new agers—the stages of genuine spiritual growth, as well as the topic of death and dying and how most people rob themselves of a deeper and more meaningful life by denying death instead of trying to face it and learn from it. Throughout the book, there is an undercurrent of addressing the flaws in the way people tend to think—or try not to think too deeply about life, death, themselves, their problems, et cetera.

In the last book in this series, “The Road Less Traveled & Beyond,” Peck is most direct in his focus on dealing with our thinking and lack of thinking. Peck is imploring us and helping us, the reader, to learn how to think more clearly and deeply, to learn how to think well, to get beyond simplistic and reductionistic ways of looking at life, to embrace paradox, to really examine what we’re actually saying, to even become more androgynous (use both hemispheres of our brain) in our thinking and decision-making.

This series of books—actually all of Peck’s books including “People of the Lie,” “A Different Drum,” “A World Waiting to Be Born,”—reward careful, thoughtful reading and re-reading/re-visiting. Reading them at 35 or 40, you will likely see things you missed or that the mind was not prepared for or that you lacked the “life experience” for at 25 or 30. The same with re-reading Peck’s books at 45 or 50. My advice is read the books slowly, highlight them, wrestle with them, give yourself time to explore you own thoughts—this is most important of all—when you come across a section or passage that is fertile, put the book down and explore your own thoughts, write them, journal them, delve into them. As Merton put it:

“The purpose of a book of meditations is to teach you how to think and not to do your thinking for you. Consequently if you pick up such a book and simply read it through, you are wasting your time. As soon as any thought stimulates your mind or your heart you can put the book down because your meditation has begun.” – Thomas Merton, “New Seeds of Contemplation,” pg. 215

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About John

I am a married, 46-year old, Midwesterner, with four children. My primary interest is in leading a very examined and decent and Loving life; my interests that are related to this and that feed into this include (and are not limited to) -- psychology, philosophy, poetry, critical thinking, photography, soccer, tennis, chess, bridge.
This entry was posted in M. Scott Peck, Mental Health, Real Love, Self-Extension, Spiritual Growth, The Road Less Traveled, Thomas Merton, Truth, Waking Up and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Brief Book Review of M. Scott Peck’s “The Road Less Traveled”

  1. bobbiblogger says:

    Reblogged this on Bobbi's Blog and commented:
    Excellent revuew of “The Road Less Traveled” — I have an autographed copy of the original edition, which has stood the test of time.

    • John says:

      Thank you for the reblog! I was saddened to hear of Peck’s death back in 2005. His books have been a tremendous source of wisdom and insight and even solace for me. I would have loved to have seen him speak in person. Awesome that you have an autographed copy of “The Road Less Traveled”! Did you meet him?

  2. I only have this book and “A Different Drum” but they are proudly worn and somewhat dog-eared, having been re-read so many times. However you make a terrific point about re-visiting these works at all stages of life. And to be honest, all that re-reading happened in my 20’s and 30’s. Now in my 40’s it’s time to add them once again to the stack beside the bed (or livingroom, you know, how currently read books follow us around). Thank you for another wonderfully thought-provoking post John. I will be happily revisiting and re-reading this post as well.
    Warm regards,
    Gina

    • John says:

      Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment so thoughtfully and kindly, Gina! 🙂

      I have so many of Peck’s books, but the two you mentioned, plus “A World Waiting to Be Born: Civility Rediscovered“; “People of the Lie“: “Further Along the Road Less Traveled“; and “The Road Less Traveled and Beyond” are the books of his that I revisit or reach for most often.

      And what other books are you rereading? And or what are some of your all-time favorite books in terms of personal growth, et cetera?

      Warmest regards,

      John

      • You’ve asked a great question that’s had me pondering, “What ARE my favorites?” Not sure why this seemingly simple question would trip me up, except that I’ve always had trouble with ‘favorites’ 🙂 Some of my most re-read books are “A Return To Love” and “Everyday Grace” by Marianne Williamson, “Success Principles” by Jack Canfield, “Care of the Soul” and “the Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life” by Thomas Moore, and “Pocketful of Miracles” by Joan Borysenko. I enjoy the works of Deepak Chopra and Wayne Dyer.
        I am ever so thankful that an older relative gave 14-yr-old me Dyer’s “Your Erroneous Zones” and “Pulling Your Own Strings”. Every teenager should be so lucky to learn to not give other people power over our own emotions. To learn to eliminate statements like ‘You made me..’ or anything else that perpetuates the myth that others can make us feel or do anything.
        I feel safe to post a long reply here because you encourage dialogue (Thank You!). I have a stack of books waiting to be enjoyed, like the Dalai Lama’s “Wisdom of Forgiveness”, Susan Cain’s “Quiet”, Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now” and Chopra’s “How to Know God”. I enjoy uplifting poetry from the early part of the last century, especially Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Bliss Carman, and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Whew! There you go, for a start 😉
        And I now ask… what are some of YOUR favorites, or those waiting to be started? Although your excellent sidebar does tell much, and I know I want to get some Thich Nhat Hahn. There is so much wisdom out there being shared, and so much to be read. It’s incredibly exciting! Thank you again, always, for the insights you are sharing here with your blog.
        Warmest Regards,
        Gina

        • John says:

          Hello Gina,

          Thank you for the very nice and thoughtful reply and kind words. And I very much appreciate the wisdom and insights you are sharing on your blog! 🙂

          I’ve read a few of the books you mentioned and I am familiar with all of the authors you mentioned (meaning I’ve probably skimmed or read parts of some the books you mentioned, or other books by those authors). I will let you know that reading Marianne Williamson’s “A Return to Love” 15 years ago or so, was certainly a book that while it didn’t directly feed into my “awakening” experience (I share a bit more about that here, in the comments section)–I found the book (or the book found me) in the weeks afterwards–it certainly contributed to and clarified and even challenged my thinking on what Love actually is. (So much so, that I ought to add it to my “Recommended Reading” list on this site!)

          As for some of my waiting to be started, I probably have too many to name–I tend to buy with the idea that in the future I will have more time to actually read the book. So in the meantime, I tend to just read bits and pieces of this or that book. Some of these would include books by Roger Housden, John O’Donohue, Karen Armstrong, Thich Nhat Hanh, a couple of novels by Rafael Yglesias, and a lot of poetry books–Hafiz, Rilke, Rumi, David Whyte, Mary Oliver.

          Books/authors I tend to turn to again and again and re-read? . . . Peck, Fromm, Thoreau, Emerson, Montaigne, Schnarch, Murray Bowen, Rilke, Krishnamurti, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche. Schwietzer, Buscaglia, Pema Chodron, Gurdjieff, Ospensky, Jacob Needleman, Merton, Nouwen, Simone Weil, C.S. Lewis, Martin Luther King Jr., among others.

          A few more of my favorite must-read change your life type of books (aside from the one’s mentioned in my “Recommended Reading” post/page) would include “The Denial of Death” by Earnest Becker, and “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey.

          I’ll add more to this list as I think of more!

          And back to your list–I have several Dalai Lama books that I have around and have read or read parts of and enjoyed. And I definitely have enjoyed what I have read of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s “Gift from the Sea.”

          Warmest regards, Gina

          John

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