In a nutshell: Once you admit that life is difficult, the fact is no longer of great consequence. Once you accept responsibility, you can make better choices.
Famously beginning with the words ‘Life is difficult’, The Road Less Traveled covers such gloomy topics as the myth of romantic love, evil, mental illness and the author’s psychological and spiritual crises. Its premise is that once we know the worst, we are free to see what is beyond it. It is inspirational but in an old-fashioned way, putting self-discipline at the top of the list of values for a good life.
Peck is a conventionally trained psychotherapist, but has been influential in the movement to have psychology recognise the stages of spiritual growth. He sees the great feature of our times as being the reconciliation of the scientific and the spiritual world views. The Road Less Traveled is his attempt to bridge the gap further, and it has clearly been successful.
Self-control is the essence of Peck’s brand of self-help. He says: ‘Without discipline we can solve nothing. With only some discipline we can solve only some problems. With total discipline we can solve all problems.’
Someone who can delay gratification has the key to psychological maturity, whereas impulsiveness is a mental habit that, in denying opportunities to experience pain, creates neuroses. Most large problems are the result of not facing up to earlier, smaller problems, of failing to be ‘dedicated to the truth’. The great mistake most people make is believing that problems will go away of their own accord.
This lack of responsibility will damage us in other ways. Our culture puts freedom on a pedestal yet people have a natural willingness to embrace political authoritarianism and give up their personal power.
Discipline is not only about ‘growing up’ in terms of accepting reality, but in the appreciation of the tremendous range of choices that exist.
The road and its rewards
One of the book’s great insights is how few people choose the spiritual path. Peck observes that people in psychotherapy often have little taste for the power that comes with genuine mental health. Life on autopilot is preferable to any major challenge.
The Road Less Traveled is rich with stories of real people. Some demonstrate the transformation of a life; in others people refuse to change or cannot be bothered. Rather than the horror of a mental illness, Peck says, most of us have to deal with the straightforward anguish of missed opportunities.
Why, when the rewards are so great? The road less travelled is rockier than the regular highway of life on which people seem happy enough.
The rewards of spiritual life are enormous, says Peck: peace of mind and freedom from real worry that most people never imagine is possible. Nevertheless, deepened spirituality also brings responsibility as we move from spiritual childhood to adulthood. Spiritual timidity and laziness result in a limited existence; discipline opens the door to limitlessness in our experience of life.
Love is a decision
What is the fuel on the road less travelled? Love. Peck is at his best discussing this thing that cannot be adequately defined. There is a tendency to think of love as effortless. It may be mysterious but it is also effortful; love is a decision, says Peck. Anyone can fall in love but not everyone can decide to love.
We may never control love’s onset but we may, with discipline, remain in charge of our response. Once these ‘muscles’ of love have been used, they tend to stay, increasing our power to channel love in the most life-giving and appropriate way.
There is a contrast between Peck’s belief that psychological change is necessarily slow, and the cognitive psychology view that our limitations can be removed without much trouble if we know how. This is a basic divide in the self-help literature: the hard work ethic that includes building character and discovering soul; and the belief in mental technology, that our problems are not deep seated and can be addressed by practical psycho-technological methods.
Peck’s classic will seem a little earnest to some, to others it will be full of life-changing insights. It is one of the giants of the self-help canon, having sold more than seven million copies, and its title has entered the public idiom.
The book was written in 1978, and made it on to the New York Times bestseller list in 1983, staying on the list for so long that it entered the Guinness Book of Records.
In a similar vein
Alain de Botton, How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997)
Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul (1992)
Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love (1994)