I just found myself, again, recommending The Road Less Traveled to someone in need of guidance. Yes, I know, this book is nearly forty years old. And yet, its advice is just as relevant and useful today as it was when the late M. Scott Peck wrote it.
Dr. Peck was a practicing psychiatrist, and this book had its origins in his actual experiences counseling people. At its heart, it’s about transcendence, and Peck wrote eloquently about the power of love to transform our lives and the importance of connecting to our higher power for true peace of mind. But he also provided some of the simplest and best advice I’ve ever read about finding the way to mental health. It’s advice that is so routinely ignored as to make it profound. It’s this:
The only way our problems will go away is if we solve them.
Obvious, yes. But Peck described how his patients would routinely resist this prescription for their unhappiness, wanting him to show them another way instead. They were looking for the shortcut that would make their lives go back to the way they used to be. Before they became so miserable.
Dr. Peck saw his work as helping his patients understand that things were never going back to the way they used to be. And that what they described as their problems — anxiety, sadness, discomfort, exhaustion — weren’t really the problems at all. They were the symptoms. “Rather than being the illness, the symptoms are the beginning of its cure,” he wrote. “The fact that they are unwanted makes them all the more a phenomenon of grace — a gift of God, a message from the unconscious, if you will, to initiate self-examination and repair.”
In order for his patients’ symptoms to go away, they were going to have to do the work of uncovering and then solving their actual problems. And this, he wrote, they often didn’t want to do.
“Fearing the pain involved, almost all of us, to a greater or lesser degree, attempt to avoid problems. We procrastinate, hoping that they will go away. We ignore them, forget them, pretend they do not exist.” In short, he wrote, “we attempt to get out of them rather than suffer through them.”
The work of suffering through our problems requires honest evaluation of ourselves. And it’s hard. But it is possible.
I first discovered this book as my marriage was ending, when I was living with unrelenting anxiety, resentment, and sadness. It took me a long time, but I eventually figured out the reason I was staying stuck in these feelings was that I continued to blame them on the behaviors of my now ex-husband. I had to recognize that my problem was the part I had played in allowing my marriage to take the terrible steps it did and then in continuing to relive it all on a regular basis. My work lay in understanding the reasons behind my own behaviors and then learning how to change them. This was a difficult and painful process for me, but in the end it provided me with the way forward — the only possible way forward — and the path to healing.
As Peck explains, our problems simply will not go away unless we take responsibility for them. This may not be what we want to hear. But if we allow ourselves to accept the truth of it, we’ll see that it’s an empowering message. And that, ultimately, meeting problems “head on” and then finding a way to solve them is what gives life its meaning.
Dr. Peck begins the book with this simple sentence, “Life is difficult.” He wants to get that out of the way right up-front, that everyone has problems, and they never stop coming as long as we’re breathing. But that doesn’t mean life has to be misery. Through discipline and self-observance, we can find a better way of living our imperfect human lives and even moving toward happiness. And we can thank him, still, for his gentle guidance in learning how to do it.