The Road Less Traveled

a book by M. Scott Peck, M.D. – Highly Recommended

This is one of the first books I read at the beginning of my recovery from substance abuse. The simple message, clearly expressed, resonated with my experience. Life is painful so you had better learn how to suffer and grow from it. At the time I read this all I could see ahead of me was suffering. The hope offered by a book saying that our suffering could lead to a better life was all I had to look forward to.

What I found in the book was much more than techniques on how to suffer. I found myself described in detail. I learned medical terms that described by experience and emotions. I found a spiritual message of common sense and practical value. I learned that I must discard my old “road map” and begin building a new one. I felt much less lonely after reading this book. The less traveled road I was on was no longer dark and lonely. It was fresh and hopeful. I discovered that this new road was only less traveled in the sense that I had never traveled it. Others had been traveling it for centuries.

To try and summarize the information and wisdom contained in this book would be a lengthy process and would do nothing more than dilute a powerful message already expertly told. Instead, I am going to describe some of my feelings that resulted from reading the different sections of the book.

The discipline needed to dedicate your life to reality was different than the discipline I had practiced in building my life and career. I had avoided anything that was painful reasoning that if it was good for me it wouldn’t hurt. My experience was perfectly expressed on Page 45:

“What happens when one has striven long and hard to develop a working view of the world, a seemingly useful, workable map, and then is confronted with new information suggesting that that view is wrong and the map needs to be largely redrawn?”

The answer is given on Page 46:

“Sadly, such a person may expend much more energy ultimately in defending an outmoded view of the world than would have been required to revise and correct it in the first place.”

My map changed when Jackie expressed her desire to end our marriage. I rejected the advice of my therapist and my friends. I fought, nearly to the death, to preserve the existing viewpoint of my life and the world in general. The discrepancy between the real world and how it was reflected in my consciousness resulted in an unbearable pain that I tried to assuage by any means possible. The psychiatric term for this is transference. My term for it was “How dare she do this to me!”

Throughout this first section of the book I found many references to different aspects of the 12-Step program which I had at that time begun practicing. This is one of the reasons I didn’t feel alone. I was attending a 12-Step meeting every night hearing a message I didn’t really understand and barely believed in. Reading in this book the same message that I was hearing in Alcoholics Anonymous and its cousins helped me accept its meaning. The idea of a spiritual life was very new to me. Finding these same ideas in a best-selling book was comforting.

The author says that love is not a feeling; it is an action. It is the exertion of our effort towards the spiritual growth of ourselves or others. Huh? Talk about complicating things!  He was saying that I couldn’t trust the feeling that told me throughout my life when I was in love with someone. He then proceeded to dissect with a surgeon’s skill this idea of love.

In the chapter on passive dependency, I found myself described with unerring accuracy. Though it was painful to see myself so clearly exposed, it was a revelation in another way. I’m not special. They teach doctors about me in medical school. The feelings I have had in nearly all of my relationships were not the results of the actions of my partners. They were the diseased twitching of my faulty synapses combined with a certain combination of hormones and salted with a specific type of FOO. I was deflated as well as relieved.

Just a couple of quotes. I read these with jaw dropping surprise at how clearly they described me:

Page 100, ”It is as if it does not matter whom they are dependent upon as long as there is just someone.”

Page 102, “This is not to say that passive dependent people never do things for others, but their motive in doing things is to cement the attachment of the others to them….”

Page 104, “…they feel the need to scramble for love, care and attention wherever they can find it, and once having found it, cling to it with a desperation that leads them to unloving, manipulative, Machiavellian behavior that destroys the very relationship they see to preserve.”

(Now, why did Jackie leave me? Ouch.)

After describing what love isn’t, the author describes what love is. Intellectually I understand what he describes but I can’t say that I have much experience with the concepts he describes. The experience I do have is in relation to my mother and a select group of lifelong friends. As far as a healthy love for a sexual partner goes: nada. My reality was all about the first part of the section (unhealthy), not the second part (healthy). It is possible that I will never be in a healthy, loving, sexual relationship. That is too bad; it sounds like a good thing.

The last part of the book looks behind the psychological descriptions and drives discussed in the first part of the book or as the author says, “…the slowly enlarging interface between religion and the science of psychology.” I found fewer revelations in the last 100 pages. It was interesting and I appreciated his reliance on Jung for some of his material.

Several case histories are recounted which point to our underlying religious beliefs. The conclusion is that we must develop our own. We develop our own religious beliefs by being open to the miraculous. The ability to see the miraculous requires us to accept Grace. This is the last section of the book.

Learning to see and appreciate Grace seems to be a lifelong endeavor. For me, it requires discipline to spiritual principles. As Alcoholics Anonymous says, “More will be revealed.”

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