“Life is difficult.” Thus begins the popular book ‘The Road Less Travelled’ by M. Scott Peck (1936-2005), an American psychiatrist. First published in 1978, the book’s simple language lends to easy understanding. Peck draws considerably from his daily clinical practice as evidenced by the innumerable examples sprinkled across the book. In a four part series I briefly explain the tools Peck writes about to achieve mental and spiritual growth; at the outset he mentions he does not distinguish the two. The four tools are discipline, love, growth-religion and grace.
While discipline is the first step to achieving a full life what is the motive or the energy for discipline? Love, says Scott Peck. Peck defines love as, “The will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” He clarifies self love and love of others go hand-in-hand and are ultimately indistinguishable. Love is not just a desire but a combination of action and intention. Peck dedicates a major part of his book to love and the length of this post reflects that.
Peck first tackles the misconceptions related to love. The first misconception is the idea of “falling in love” which he says is more a sexual intent. Eventually couples who “fall in love” will fall out of love and ego boundaries (discussed in Part 1) snap back in place. This is when a couple must either work on ‘real’ love or fall apart. Peck states, “…falling in love is a trick our genes pull on our otherwise perceptive mind to hoodwink or trap us into marriage.”
Peck contemplates the myth of romantic love popularised by famous fairy tales probably exists to propagate human race, i.e., to ensure the survival of the species. In saying so he acknowledges the role “falling in love”, however temporary, plays in the larger idea of true love.
The second misconception about love is dependency. Love involves the ability to recognise the separateness of two individuals. “Love is the free exercise of choice” and is not parasitic. Dependency or requiring another person for one’s very survival is unhealthy. This dependency can occur between a parent-child, husband-wife or two friends and is a recipe for disaster. Peck beautifully writes, “Two people love each other only when they are quite capable of living without each other but ‘choose’ to live with each other.”
We all experience feelings of dependency but it becomes a problem when we let it rule our lives. People who define themselves solely on their dependency based relationship often suffer from a passive dependent personality; such people often have no identity of their own and are afraid of solitude. The source of this problem is a lack of love and affection in childhood. Children who grow up with inconsistent patterns of love and affection often grow up with a deep sense of insecurity. Dependency ultimately destroys relationships rather than build them.
Thirdly, Peck addresses the habit of attaching the term ‘love’ to anything we cathect to, in other words any object or person we attach ourselves to. We often say we ‘love’ our car or our house. Real love, Peck says, is between people who respect each other’s strength, independence and individuality and not with objects. It is not based on conditions. He gives the example of mothers who nurture their children with abundance of love but stop loving the same children when they grow up and exert their independence or disobey her. This type of a mother ‘decathects’ herself from the child.
The fourth misconception about love is self sacrifice. Many people equate love with picking up after others. This is misguided love, a perversion equivalent to masochism. Genuine love is a self replenishing activity and aims at spiritual growth.
The final misconception is love being a feeling. Peck states love is an action. The misconception of love being a feeling arises from cathecting (attaching) to objects or people we give importance to whether they help us or not. They can be fleeting and momentary. Genuine love on the other hand involves commitment and wisdom and transcends the matter of cathexes. Love is more of a volition than an emotion and is a committed and thoughtful decision.
After confronting the misconceptions of love Peck shifts to what love involves. First and foremost, love involves effort. The primary form of effort that love includes is attention or a shift in consciousness towards another. The most common form of attention is listening. The type of listening we undertake depends on the age of the person we love. A toddler often chatters away while an adolescent has few words to offer to his parents. An adult too requires the need to be listened to. In all cases listening takes on different forms but is of utmost importance.
Next, love involves the risk of loss and hence courage. Some people avoid risk and devote their entire lives to not attach to people. Love requires attachment for a beginning. With attachment comes the risk of loss. But if we have to avoid the pain of loss we will have to do away with many thing, e.g., having children, getting married, friendships etc. But these are the very things that contribute to a full live. To live a full life we must risk loss. Emotional problems arise when we avoid legitimate suffering that comes from risking loss.
The more loving we are the more risks we have to take. Growing up is one such risk. It is the shift from childhood to adulthood. Simple as it sounds many do not psychologically grow up and remain children right through adulthood. They do not separate from their parents. The process of growing up takes time and involves several steps into the unknown. These are usually taken in adolescence but can happen at any age. What does independence have to do with love? Growing up is an act of self love and of forging change in our lives. When we value ourselves we allow change. Psychological independence requires growing up.
Another risk love encounters is commitment. Commitment is the foundation of any loving relationship. Problems with commitment form a major part of psychological disorders. Commitment involves an extension of selves. With commitment the risk of confrontation also exists. In a relationship we have to risk exercising power. Criticising or confronting those we love is not easy and is often seen as arrogant. Before confronting those we love we must exercise self scrutiny and humility. To confront means to guide or change the course of person’s life. For that to happen that person should be ready for change and the confrontation should not prove detrimental to her.
Another facet of love is it is disciplined. Uncontrolled emotions are not necessarily any deeper than a disciplined feeling. One should not be a slave to one’s feelings.
Lastly, Peck points out professional literature in the West ignores the importance of love in psychotherapy. According to him this is due to the confusion between romantic love and genuine love. Psychotherapy is often reparenting. Just as a parent loves his child it is not wrong for a therapist to show respect and affection towards a patient. However, at no point must the therapist use his patient for his personal benefit. It must be recalled that love is achieving spiritual growth.
Several questions arise about the origins of love or how some people overcome lack of love and affection in childhood to live fulfilling lives. Peck deals with these questions in his final two sections on religion and grace.
END OF PART 2