Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck, M.D.

I have run across this book so many times in used bookstores that at some point, I don’t know when, it started to indicate in my mind that a store was overstocked with generic titles. I periodically stop in at thrift stores—hoping to salvage some prophetic oracle from the ravages of being sandwiched and left to die a slow death between the James Pattersons and Julie Garwoods of the bargain aisles—and there this book can be found in droves. The title, extrapolated from a poem by the great poet Robert Frost, coerced me on multiple occasions to pick it up and flip through it. The subtitle was hardly captivating, “A new psychology of love, traditional values, and spiritual growth.” I finally decided to take one home to determine to what extent my chronic nausea at seeing it and its legion brethren was valid.

From the outset of reading, I was mildly interested. Soon I became intensely interested. Dr. Peck starts with his definition of a neurosis, and points out that people’s biggest problem is the avoidance of pain. He firmly plants his thesis with a quote from Carl Jung, “[A] neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.” A regular feature of our existence is change, and with the change of the external world, our internal maps of the world must undergo a change as well, or we become fixated on an outmoded index of reality. But this hurts, and to update one’s worldview is considered by many, albeit unconsciously, a hazard and inconvenience that is not worth the trouble. What’s worse, many would rather obscure any reminder of reality than adjust the old comfortable way of life and thinking.

After this prelude to the meaning of confusion and pain, he pulls back further to the beginning of our psychological development—birth. As a psychoanalyst, following most closely to the traditions of Jung and Freud, he maintains that a much of our malfunctions as adults stem from how we were raised by our parents. A parent who has never learned to discipline their own lives will not know how to affirm or discipline their children in healthy ways. Parenting involves knowing how to suffer with your child to help them learn to overcome their challenges, but without this ability to endure and hold out for the higher good, a parent will remain self-focused and unable to create an environment of stability and trust for a child to feel they are safe, and therefore, valuable. Feeling valuable and rooted is the most important prerequisite for self-discipline and the ability to delay gratification because, understood for what it really is, “self-discipline is self-caring”.

And yet, the author does not espouse a fatalistic sort of hard-wired neurology derived solely from one’s genes and upbringing. He believes firmly in the unique human ability to override past conditioning and forge new paths. He says this autonomous responsibility for one’s self is “perhaps the one [characteristic] that makes us most human...our capacity to do the unnatural, to transcend and hence transform our own nature.” And yet, ironically, this capacity is what we fear, referred to as the “pain of freedom”, for it means that we are master of, or at the very least partly responsible for, our choices, and thus our destiny is what he make of it.

Having established that we have a choice to delay gratification and suffer for the things we value and that will bring joy to our lives, he segways into the goal—and ultimately the deepest impetus—of self-discipline: love. Love, in the mind of Dr. Peck, is the goal of all nature. He defines love by contrasting it with what is often misunderstood as ‘falling in love’. Here Peck provides what I have found to be the most compelling and cogent explanation of physical-emotional infatuation that I have ever heard or read. He describes the phenomenon of falling in love as a total collapse of ego boundaries—the felt perimeters of the limits of one’s body and being—and pouring one’s self into another person’s cramped ego ‘container’ hoping to escape one’s lonely, and loathsome, existence. This inevitably leads to disillusionment as one or both parties realize that they did not extend their world in love, but only squeezed into the already crowded space of another lonely soul.

From there Peck defines genuine love as the extension of one’s ego boundaries without collapse, a thinning of the walls of one’s being to slowly blur the line between one’s self and others. Here Peck admits he leans on a mystery—the progress of a person who loves becoming more and more “identified with the world”. This process of investing one’s self, without losing one’s self, is referred to as cathexis, and Peck develops this by adding that “when we cathect an object outside of ourselves we also psychologically incorporate a representation of that object into ourselves”, and thereby broaden ourselves into less of an isolated and lonely entity.

I truly appreciated Peck’s elucidation of the dangers of co-dependency, referring to it as a form of parasitism. “When you require another individual for your survival, you are a parasite on that individual.” Nasty imagery. Next time you see a parent that refuses to acknowledge the autonomy of their child, refusing to accept that the child may grow up and not need them anymore, try to imagine the parent as a giant leach sucking the life and will out of the child, leaving only a limp, bloodless shell of a thing that will never develop strong legs to run from the giant bloodsucker with its razor-toothed mouth to their throat. Peck believes that for a person to truly benefit from another person, they must both develop firm boundaries or they are both liable to be harmful for each other. “Ego boundaries must be hardened before they can be softened. An identity must be established before it can be transcended.” He even goes so far as to call dependency ‘anti-love’. He urges his readers not to fool themselves into thinking that anything ought to be done exclusively for another person. Some things we must do because they put us right with ourselves, with others, and with God. The right thing is as much for us as it is for another. “Whenever we think of ourselves as doing something [solely] for someone else, we are in some way denying our own responsibility.” He returns again and again to this simple but often terrifying principle: to love another, we must first love ourselves.

The first 150 pages or so were the best. The rest I found to be somewhat speculative and even a bit rash in spots. I believe he is correct in his view that science is first founded on a belief of some sort, an implicit value system, and the denigration of religion by science is often not only as bigoted as any religious belief, but also backwards. Religion and science are mostly concerned with subject and object respectively, and there should be a healthy respect one for the other. Peck recognizes this dichotomy of roles, and does a great job of defending religion against science for the most part, but his book seemed to lose steam as he dabbled in subjects that weren’t his forte. He attempted to wax philosophical, and though I think he did all right and many may find his conclusions enlightening, I found it to stray too far off topic. It is true that his original thoughts in psychoanalysis are indebted to the linking of his philosophy of life to psychology, and his bravery in owning up to personal values in scientific pursuits is a huge leap beyond his peers, but I was more interested in the application of his beliefs in psychoanalysis, rather than a full review of his personal values and faith. That being said, I was much more familiar with the philosophical/theological roots of his work than some of his readers might be, and I recognize that I might have otherwise criticized him for leaving us hanging if he didn’t take the time to unfold how he developed his ideas.

So, the end felt anti-climactic and wound down. But there are other things too that I would warn people of before they read it. He refers to controlling one’s feelings as “slave-owning” (couldn’t he have used employee management or dog-training?) and he was entirely unapologetic about the slave-owning metaphor, riding it hard without even a nod towards the relatively recent struggle of civil rights; he briefly mentions a few times that he condones open marriage to some degree; he believes in psychic healing; and he is intrigued with a fanciful version of Jung’s synchronicity. But in spite of all this, I still consider him to be eminently respectful of the tension between science and religion, and that is a tonic to find in his field of typically aggressive anti-religion and a reductionist view of humanity and a purpose to our existence. He’s a brave psychologist, and his openness to certain ideas, however disagreeable to me, still seems like an honest result of his personal best of reason and love, not a sloppy acceptance of novel psychology.

For me, the first 150 pages were worth the read, and I’ve already purchased another copy for a friend to benefit from the thoughts contained in the first part alone. For the rest of you, check your local Goodwill—I’m sure they have a few copies.

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