M. Scott Peck took readers on the road to mental health and then further
I don’t know how much money publishers make from self-help books, but most shops have miles of them. There are books to teach you how to win friends and influence people, how to be rich, how to lead, how to succeed, how to brag about yourself, how to apologise, and how to find love.
Such books used to be called pop psychology because many of their authors had educational and professional qualifications to pronounce on the human mind and its capacity to delude itself. I’ve always wondered whether a book could take the place of a therapist. A human being in front of you, whether therapist, priest or college buddy, can force you to examine yourself by asking honest and well-structured questions. When faced with incisive questions in a book, on the other hand, a reader may look inward for the answers or simply shut the book and go out for a stroll.
M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled was published in 1978 and has been on the bestseller lists ever since. When I first read it, long ago, it shook my view of all human relationships. I recently bought a copy, wondering whether I’d still find its message so powerful.
This time I turned my attention to chapters I had not bothered about before. Peck starts his book with the subject of discipline, stating at the outset that life is difficult, and that as soon as we realise this, life becomes that much less difficult.
This is a version, as Peck himself points out, of the Buddha’s first truth: life is suffering. Many people lack the strength to face and resolve their problems because they haven’t been empowered by parental love, he says. But whether or not your problems are your fault, solving them is entirely your responsibility.
This is the self-help book for grown-ups prepared to face the harshest truths, for example that they may not love their children, or that their parents might not have loved them, or that what they consider love is often infantile dependency or the urge to control another. Until they hold truth above comfort, writes Peck, seekers of mental health cannot refine their perspectives to properly understand where they stand in relation to others. Honest love, he insists, is not simply a feeling but a sum of daily, mindful actions.
From discipline and love, Peck draws the reader inexorably into questions of religion and grace. Twenty years ago, I declined to take that leap. It didn’t seem to follow from taking responsibility and scrutinising human relationships, especially when religion often dovetails with the forces of oppression and delusion.
After all, Peck’s strength is that he treats the mind using the mind, not pills, and the reader who has heard religion compared to opiates is naturally wary.
But life is difficult, remember? Peck ultimately leaves it to each seeker to decide, having found his way to mental health, whether he will stop there or travel further in search of lasting peace.