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.
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
- Active v Passive Reading (fullcatastropheliving.wordpress.com)
- The Road Less Traveled: M. Scott Peck’s Road To The New Age (http://www.watchman.org/na/road.htm)
- Some Thoughts on The Road Less Travelled (http://couchtrip.wordpress.com/2009/10/05/the-road-less-travelled/)
- M. Scott Peck: Traveling Down the Wrong Road (http://www.equip.org/articles/m-scott-peck-traveling-down-the-wrong-road/)
- The Road Less Travelled – A Synopsis (Part 1) (morequestionslessanswers.wordpress.com)
- The Road Less Traveled (practicalbibleteaching.wordpress.com)
- Book Review: The Road Less Traveled (http://thistoolslife.blogspot.com/2012/03/book-review-road-less-traveled.html)