Looking Back on the Road Less Traveled

By Neil Earle

The other day I came across some notes I had written back in April 2000 as a student at a Fuller Seminary psychology class. It was a study of the writings of M. Scott Peck, a psychiatrist and successful author of The Road Less Traveled. We got to interview Peck by speaker phone on some of his ideas, especially his most famous work.

The book seemed to take North America by storm in 1979.The author later related: “I thought I was repeating ideas others had already advanced, notably Carl Jung and William James, but I guess people were ready to listen.”

No doubt. The experiences of the Watergate scandal, defeat in Vietnam and high inflation with unemployment had sapped what was once dependable American optimism.

Psychology and Spirituality

On Page 12 Peck summarized his bestseller as the analysis of “the journey of spiritual growth.” He borrowed heavily from Eastern concepts of Death and Rebirth and especially the Buddhist concept of “giving up” part of the Self in order to move on to the next stage of life (pages 72-74).

I had just finished a series of Extension Classes in literature at UCLA where the writings of Herman Hesse were stressed. Hesse’s book “Siddhartha” was a fictionalized probing of the inner life of the Buddha. Peck focused on the Eastern concept of the need to give up and leave a part of the past or the Self behind to press forward for more growth. This lined up with other books of the 1970s, especially Gail Sheehy’s “Passages” and Daniel Levinson’s “The Stages of a Man’s Life.”

Of course, Jesus himself talked of the denial of Self as part of the less-traveled road to spiritual realignment (Matthew 10:39).

Peck, who later became a full-fledged Christian, was integrating Christian and Eastern therapeutic principles for our age. He popularized four of the basic techniques of spiritual discipline. These are:

  1. Delaying Gratification
  2. Accepting responsibility for our lives, actions and attitudes (easier said than done)
  3. Dedication to Truth
  4. A balanced approach – disciplining too much discipline.
M. Scott Peck

Our Skilful Self-Deceptions

As early as the mid-1980s I began to draw on some of Peck’s themes in preaching and counseling after being impressed by his moral and spiritual integrity and gift of perception. That was obvious in his accounts of many counselees who wanted mere “relief” rather than engage in deep-seated personal change and transformation. Some of it was humorous as when Peck recited the story of the belligerent sergeant on Okinawa who “bobbed and weaved” like a boxer in trying to avoid facing himself. (“This island would drive anybody to drink.”) For a page and a half the hapless patient resisted all Peck’s attempts to point him to more meaningful pursuits and constructive hobbies. I chuckled to myself to reread the case history of the young couple merely interested in giving out “preplanned press releases” as excuses rather than seeking real change through courageously confronting the Self.

The sobering part is when we can see ourselves in these attempts at rationalizations. Seeing our own successes at evading truths (see point 3) gives us pastors a lot more patience and understanding for people playing the same games we do. Peck cites another 1970s best-seller titled The Games People Play. BUT…the dedication to truth must be faced. The problem with successfully evading some hard truths about ourselves and life is this: we never quite get grounded in reality and are susceptible to the mass of deceptions our society throws up to stunt our spiritual growth. The Bible calls them temptations or, more ominously, “the snares of the devil.”

A Rugged Honesty

Rereading the notes, I admired Peck’s no-nonsense honesty even when I disagreed with some of his prescriptions. It helped confirm me in the fact that very few people want to make the real journey of inner change and not knowing this can be very very self-defeating, for ourselves and others. It may be at the root of much pastoral frustration and depression. Twenty-one years later I can say I owe Peck a lot for helping me “stay sane” through the ups and downs of life, and especially when Christian folk turn against us and blame us for their problems. These can be very testing experiences especially when we realize we also are plagued with imperfections.

Thanks again to Professor Guy for the chance to take his class and help me along on the less-traveled road.