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Charting a path
le 5 janvier 2006
I first read M. Scott Peck's 'The Road Less Travelled' over 20 years ago, but it is a text to which I return again and again, as Peck's insights and observations remain a constant source of inspiration and guidance in my life. It still finds a ready home in the hands of therapists, counselors, ministers, teachers, career planners, and others as part of their resources, and is not out of place in the home of anyone who cares about the directions of her or his life.
Peck was a clinical psychiatrist - the material for this book came largely from his experiences with clients and others, seeing what worked and what didn't, what was missing and what was mis-understood. Often cases involved psychotherapy (talk therapy), but the processes here are not confined to therapists' offices. The same kinds of problem solving, processing and relationship building that takes place in psychotherapy can be used as life-long tools.
Peck resists labels such as Freudian and Jungian; he doesn't look for, nor does he offer, quick fixes or the psychotherapeutic variety of the get-rich-quick schemes. This book is not a therapy manual, but rather a guide to spiritual growth that incorporates therapeutic and psychological principles. Peck echoes the sentiments of many spiritual directors and leaders through the millennia that spiritual and personal growth are long journeys, not short leaps. It involves dedication and intention, and a willingness to accept risk and change.
Perhaps it is ironic that, given this, the first topic Peck focuses upon is Discipline. However, without discipline, change can go unchecked and uncharted, growth can become problematic, and the human soul becomes susceptible to a host of difficulties. Dedication and application to problem-solving and long-term building (whether it be of retirement funds or of one's own spirit) requires a disciplined approach that recognises that life is difficulty (the first of Buddha's Four Noble Truths, cited by Peck), gratification sometimes needs to be delayed for greater goods, and reality needs to be approached and dealt with responsibly.
Peck calls here for a life to be totally dedicated to the truth. This is hard, because we as human beings are so accustomed to rationalisation and reinterpretation. This kind of dedication also requires a balance in life, and an ability to be flexible as the truths of our lives change - few of us are in possession of timeless and eternal truths governing every aspect of our lives, and often those who feel they are end up disappointed in the end. The continuing creativity of God in our lives requires flexibility, but this is best achieved in a disciplined and balanced context.
Peck then turns to love, a mysterious thing even in the best of times. He identifies some of the myths of `falling in love' and romantic love that our culture through various means idealises, leading to great dissatisfaction when we do not achieve the desired feelings or situations. Peck makes the assertion that love is not really a feeling, but rather an action or activity, that involves a lot of risk-taking (Peck talks about risks of independence, of commitment, of confrontation, and of loss). True love requires discipline and recognition of the needs of the self and others.
The final two sections of the text deal with aspects of religion on the spiritual and psychological development of persons. The first section looks at religion and growth processes. He does a short survey of some attitudes toward religions and denominations, as well as a look at how the modern scientific mindset colours the worldview of modern people, particularly with ideas of verification and skepticism. Some psychologists and theorists have wondered if religion were mass delusions, mass psychosis, or some other kind of sickness. Peck uses interesting extended case studies here to examine the role of various aspects of religion in the developmental lives of several people. Peck asks the question, `Is belief in God a psychopathology?' In some aspects, and for some people, the way they approach and `use' religion, the answer may well be yes. However, Peck also takes the psychotherapeutic community to task for often being too narrow or too dismissive of the value of religious sentiment and institutions in the lives of their charges.
The final section looks at the role of grace in the spiritual growth process. Grace is another mysterious force, like love, that is difficult to pin down and explain. It is also something uncontrollable. Why do some with artistic talent end up being successful and celebrated, and others not? Why do some use their talent, when others don't? In cases of ultimate despair, Peck makes the observation that while it is often clear why some people commit suicide, it is not often clear why others in the same situations don't. Some of this has to do with the unconscious mind that guides us, and some of it has to do with the miracle of serendipity, as Peck describes it.
Peck describes in some detail his concept of what grace is and how it works, in very general terms that relate to no denomination or religion in particular, but has wide applicability. He talks both about resistance to grace and the welcoming of grace. Grace is not easy, and often comes with responsibilities (Bonhoeffer talks about cheap grace; the requirements of grace are noted through scriptures of many religions). Welcoming grace welcomes often more than we bargained for, but also often more than we hoped.
In his afterword, Peck discusses the difficulties of writing in an organised and linear fashion about something so fundamentally disorganised as spiritual growth and therapeutic processes. He also talks about the need for finding competent help when required - ability is not measured by degrees, he states (something true in many professions). This is useful for those seeking a first therapeutic relationship, or needing a change.